Today, Tampa Bay Water is the only water utility in the United States that delivers a blend of groundwater, river water and desalinated seawater. Our utility is a model of regional cooperation that benefits residents, our economy and our environment. We now work through water supply issues together for the benefit of the region.
However, the transformation and cooperation didn’t happen overnight. It took strong leadership and a paradigm shift from local governments, West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority and the Southwest Florida Water Management District to put aside parochial interests and do what was right for the region.
The process started in March 1996, when West Coast held a series of facilitated workshops to develop funding strategies for the Master Water Plan. During a workshop exercise, the concept of reinventing the Authority as a regional utility with a uniform water rate was born.
The idea required months of examination, investigation and research. Each member government had to consider the ramifications to its customer base. For example, St. Petersburg had the oldest wellfields in the region and inexpensive water rates. Selling those facilities meant higher water rates for its members, but it also meant a reliable supply of water and an end to litigation.
For a member like Hillsborough County, who had no water supply facilities, the choice was easier. Its residents would enjoy a reliable supply of water, and its lands would see the benefits of environmental recovery.
In January 1997, West Coast reported its progress to the Florida Legislature, and subsequently, Florida’s state officials passed legislation that encouraged and facilitated the restructuring of the utility, including the following key provisions, which can be found in FS 373.715:
On June 10, 1998, after two years of negotiations, the late Governor Lawton Chiles and legislators from the region joined local elected officials at the Florida Aquarium to sign the restructuring contracts. On that day, Governor Chiles signed into law the bill that facilitated the restructuring of West Coast into Tampa Bay Water. The creation of Tampa Bay Water ended the “Water Wars” and eliminated the economic competition for water by creating a truly regional utility that is the sole and exclusive regional water provider.
While West Coast’s members were in negotiation to create a regional utility, they were also in discussions with Southwest Florida Water Management District. The district had taken action to reduce long-standing water use permits, leading to litigation among the members, West Coast and the district. Central to that litigation was the public’s infrastructure investment and the need to reduce pumping to lessen environmental impacts. A reduction in quantities threatened the public’s investment, water supply and water rates but continued groundwater pumping at high rates threatened the health of area lakes and wetlands.
The solution was the Northern Tampa Bay New Water Supply and Ground Water Withdrawal Reduction Agreement (Partnership Agreement). The Agreement ended litigation among the parties and provided up to $183 million in locally collected ad valorem taxes for the development of non-groundwater sources. In return, Tampa Bay Water and its members agreed to reduce groundwater pumping. Under the Partnership Agreement, the face value of the permits for 11 regional wellfields was cut from 192 mgd to 158 mgd. The agreement set deadlines for further pumping reductions from the 11 wellfields as follows: 158 mgd to 121 mgd by 2002; 121 mgd to 90 mgd by 2007.
Now, as the sole and exclusive provider of water to the region, Tampa Bay Water can plan for regional growth while remaining a steward to the environment.
The success of the region's environmental recovery efforts is a testament to what government agencies can do when we work together.
With the Partnership Agreement and the utility’s creation, Tampa Bay Water was tasked with reducing groundwater withdrawals and building alternative supplies to offset those reductions while meeting the region’s water needs. With the 2011 Consolidated Permit renewal, we were also tasked with evaluating lake and wetland recovery from reduced pumping and identifying and addressing remaining adverse impacts.
We can proudly say we have accomplished all of it. The success of the region's environmental recovery efforts is a testament to what government agencies can do when we work together.
As we celebrate our environmental recovery success, the responsibility remains with us to continue working together as stewards of our environment for future generations. We’ve come a long way as a region since 1998, and we look forward to continuing to provide clean, high quality drinking water to our growing region in an environmentally sound way.