MidPoint: Winning the Water Wars

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For decades, the country (and the Tampa region specifically) has faced a Water War. Debates and fights over who has it, who doesn’t, how we get it, and who pays for it have been a longstanding issue. On MidPoint this week, host Shelley Reback spoke with Mariella Smith, County Commissioner and Vice Chair of Tampa Bay Water board of directors, and George Cassidy, Assistant Administrator of Hillsborough County Public Utilities.

What are the Water Wars?

The Water Wars started in the early 1970’s as rapid growth and development demanded more and more water. In the Tampa Bay Region, there was competition to withdraw enough groundwater to serve each municipality. However, so much water was being withdrawn that lakes and rivers in the area were drying up. This had a large negative impact on the entire local ecosystem. Finally, in 1998, the Hillsborough and Pinellas county governments, along with the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey all came together to cooperate and resolve this issue, and Tampa Bay Water was formed.

What is Tampa Bay Water?

Tampa Bay Water is a nonprofit quasi-governmental agency that regulates, shares and conserves our local drinking water resources, selling our drinking water to local government utilities that then sell it to end consumers. Multiple counties and cities are represented on the board of directors, including Hillsborough, Tampa, Pasco, New Port Richey, Pinellas, and St. Pete. Each municipality pays the same wholesale rate per gallon of water, and the money that’s generated goes toward water conservation and investment in ways to promote more sustainable use of our water and deveop new sources of drinking water.

“I think this is a manifestation of local cooperation on our shared resources,” Smith told WMNF. “It is an amazing cooperation that has evolved given the history of the Water Wars.”

So, what are the new sources of water? The traditional source, Cassidy said, was the groundwater in the aquifer. Now, surface waters like river waters are utilized, as well as desalination processing, which takes water from the Bay and turns it into drinkable water. Reservoirs also store excess stormwater and contain it for use as well.

Continued Concerns

However, there are still concerns about the use of our water. Callers to WMNF asked about improper usage and hoarding of water resources by large companies like Nestle, or phosphate companies that are polluting and doing damage to the local water sources. To that, Smith directed attention to “swiftmud”, or the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which is the regulatory company that issues water permits and regulates industrial water use. Smith also referred listeners to the importance of electing local and State political leaders who are good stewards of the environment and who care about conserving our water resources. In addition, she urged listeners to help conserve water on a hyperlocal level by reducing water use at homes and businesses. For example, Smith informed listeners of various financial rebates available for replacing toilets and certain appliances with more water-wise versions.

Questions about the continued decline of water quality also arose. Listeners also noted that disasters have also killed integral parts of our waterway ecosystems, such as seagrass; which then kills fish and manatees. The recent Piney Point disaster has caused devastating environmental impacts from pollution. Cassady observed that the Piney Point clean-up is extremely complex and expensive and will take more than private corporate resources to manage. Smith also noted the continuing damaging effects of continued use of septic tanks in urban areas and she noted the County’s new program, bolstered by Federal funds secured by Rep. Kathy Castor, to replace those urban septic tanks with sewer connections as one way to reduce brownfield pollution.

Both Smith and Cassidy agreed that devastating ecological disasters like Piney Point do need to be handled better and sooner by local, state and federal governments and agencies. They urged more and better government regulation to prevent these failures and more funding for clean-up efforts when they do occur. On a more micro level, though, water conservation is extremely important to winning the Water Wars. Resources and advice on how to conserve water and get involved with conservation efforts is available through Tampa Bay Water. https://www.tampabaywater.org/