This week was supposed to mark the end of a five-year battle over the Zephyrhills bottled water company's attempt to take more of the water that bubbles from Pasco County's Crystal Springs in Florida.
But just when it seemed the deal would be sealed, Plant City now has entered the fray, filing a legal challenge to a proposed permit that would allow increased pumping from the spring which is just south of Zephyrhills, miles from Plant City.
According to a recent report by William March and Neil Johnson in The Tampa Tribune, the proposal would allow the spring owners, the Thomas family, to more than double the amount of water they take from the spring for sale to the company.
In return, the family would cut the amount pumped from wells at the adjacent Two Rivers Ranch, which the Thomas family also owns.
Crystal Springs Preserve Inc., a Thomas family company, provides water to the Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water bottling plant in Zephyrhills, which Thomas said employs about 300 people.
The bottler is owned by corporate giant Nestle, which also owns Perrier and other bottled water brands.
The spring feeds the Hillsborough River, the main source of drinking water for Tampa, and Plant City takes its water from wells tapping the underground supply linked to the spring and the river which has environmental problems caused in part by low flows.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District, which governs the area's water use, has announced it intends to approve the proposal.
In a notice filed with the water management district, Plant City contends that state law forbids swapping of permitted pumping capacity from one user to another, making the proposed permit illegal. Any reduction in pumping within the river basin, such as the proposed reduction at the ranch, could be made available to other permit holders, the city says.
The city also argues that the water management district did not provide proper notice of its intent to approve the permit.
When a proposed permit is challenged, the Swiftmud governing board either passes it directly to the state Divison of Administrative Hearings, or gives the challenger a chance to correct technical flaws in the protest.
If the matter goes to an administrative hearing, it still eventually will come back to the water management district board for final action.
The city of Tampa, meanwhile, is remaining neutral on the proposal, based on Swiftmud assurances that it would lead to only a negligible change in river flow, said Mike Bennett, city water department director.
The administration of Mayor Pam Iorio has announced its intent to protect the river.
But Tampa City Council Chairwoman Linda Saul-Sena, who is close to Iorio and may be the most fervent environmentalist among Tampa's elected leaders, said last week she accepts the plan as ``a good compromise.''
Robert Thomas, head of the family companies involved, said the proposal is ``a whole lot different'' from previous requests for more pumping at the spring, which were denied.
``It's the only permit request I know of anywhere in which the potential impact has been fully mitigated'' by a decrease in pumping rights elsewhere, he said.
Under the proposal, the company would increase its withdrawals from the spring during the next six years from 300,000 to 755,893 gallons a day.
Meanwhile, the annual average daily pumping limit at the ranch would decline from 1.2 million gallons to 392,000.
The increase in pumping at the spring is smaller than the decrease at the ranch, Molligan said, because some of the water used for ranch irrigation isn't consumed; it trickles back down into the aquifer.
But some river advocates still charge that the swap amounts to sleight-of-hand.
They say the ranch doesn't use all the water it's entitled to pump, so it won't be giving up that much in return for the increase in pumping at the spring.
``Their business isn't the farm, it's selling water,'' said John Ovink of Tampa, co- founder of Friends of the River, a group dedicated to environmental preservation of the Hillsborough. ``Water that comes out for drinking-water purposes is a necessity, but for commercial resale? Maybe not.''
Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan acknowledged the ranch doesn't pump its full quota year-round.
But, he said, the ranch does use near its maximum during the dry months. The permit would force the ranch to cut pumping during those critical dry periods when stream-flow problems in the river are worst, he said.
Besides, Molligan said, even if the ranch hasn't been using the maximum its current permit allows, it could at any time.
Overall, he said, the water management district staff concluded the company's request won't harm stream flow.
``Even without an offset from the ranch, there wouldn't be an adverse impact'' from the additional pumping at the spring, Molligan said. ``With an offset, it's going to be an improvement.''
But objections to the deal might still come from yet another quarter.
The Hillsborough River Interlocal Planning Board, a committee of three local government officials set up to monitor and protect the river, has asked the Swiftmud board to delay consideration of the permit.
A recent letter from the committee chairwoman, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms, raised concerns about whether the water swap is legitimate. Storms questioned the use of permit capacity rather than actual pumping to measure the mitigation.