The Water Wars

Debate, Litigation and Compromise

Years of research convinced SWFWMD that it had issued too many permits for groundwater pumping. Recognizing the environmental impact, SWFWMD told St. Petersburg and Pinellas that their permits to pump water from Hillsborough and Pasco would be limited and may have to be cut back. SWFWMD had issued those permits just 10 years before. Pinellas and St. Petersburg had invested in the infrastructure to move water to their residents.

In changing the permits, SWFWMD was saying “no” to two powerful governments. It was unprecedented and risky—but those involved in making the decision believed it was the right thing to do. Water drives the economic engine, but so does the environment. A reliable source of water was vital to the future of the region. At the same time, it’s the quality of life that brings people to Tampa Bay. The environment must be protected. It’s a very tough policy problem.

With lawsuits pending SWFWMD issued an Emergency Order to stop ever increasing pumping. Emergency Orders are issued only when conditions require urgent action to protect public health and safety. An Emergency Order must be obeyed until a court overturns it. Since negotiation wasn’t working and every other step was met with more court action, SWFWMD believed it had no other choice.

"Insuring that environmental sustainability is met is really important"

John Heuer

Healthy Wetland
Healthy Wetland

The Emergency Order met stiff resistance. St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority felt that since the permits were issued, they had permission to pump the water. SWFWMD, Hillsborough and Pasco Counties, environmentalists and residents argued that past permitting mistakes were no excuse for the current environmental crisis to be ignored.

Unable to compromise outside of the courtroom, SWFWMD, Hillsborough and Pasco counties and environmentalists and residents faced off against the Pinellas County, St. Petersburg and the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority. Eventually, a hearing officer said that since SWFWMD had issued the permits, the pumping could continue, but that given the damage, no further increase in the permits would occur. That left everyone at an impasse: intolerable environmental damage and uncertainty about the future of new water supplies.

"The balance of the environment versus waer essential."

Doug Manson

It took two more years of negotiations and pressure from the Florida Legislature to reach a compromise. A Partnership Agreement was made between the Water Management District and the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority and its members: Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas Counties, the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa (adding New Port Richey as a member government). The agreement hinged on the idea that there was not enough groundwater to balance the needs of people with the needs of the environment. Alternative supplies had to be developed in order to reduce groundwater pumping and protect the environment along with our quality of life. People need water, but we have to protect the environment, too.

As part of the Partnership Agreement The West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority was reorganized into Tampa Bay Water . Together, regional governments agreed to reduce groundwater pumping through the development of new alternative water supplies. In return, SWFWMD would help pay for new supplies which included a desalination plant capable of producing more than 20 million gallons of freshwater per day.

"...we get a lot
from that."

Susan Latvala




Throughout this website, you’ll have the opportunity to play small videos of people who were involved in shaping Tampa Bay’s water policy. They include activists, elected officials, lawyers and experts. All of them were involved in what is called, “Tampa Bay’s Water Wars.” We thought you’d like to hear what they have to say in their own words. We think you’ll appreciate their very different perspectives.

Meet the Experts