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The Levy County Commission has decided to pass on an invitation to join a regional water authority — asking the group to initiate discussions with the county's municipalities to join, then return to the board with its invitation.
But then the county entertained another suggestion at its regular Tuesday morning meeting — possibly forming its own water authority with the municipalities. That suggestion could run afoul of the board's stated policy that it does not want to be in the utility business.
The Nature Coast Regional Water Authority, formed earlier this year, has been formed after more than a year of talks between municipalities, unincorporated area leaders and county leaders in the tri-county area.
Thus far Dixie County, Gilchrist County, Fanning Springs, Cross City Trenton, and Bell have signed on to the agreement to form the authority.
The authority, formed with the help of Suwannee River Water Management District started when the cities of Chiefland, Fanning Springs, and Trenton held discussions on utilizing the water from a new Chiefland wellhead. But Chiefland backed out fearing the loss of control over its water supply, water rates and expansion of water service beyond city borders.
In Tuesday's commission meeting, Chiefland City Manager Grady Hartzog and Mayor Teal Pomeroy mentioned their concern that the Authority would limit their service expansion.
Hartzog said the city has service 1 to 2 miles outside its borders. “We don't want them to affect this,” he said. “We're looking to expand that right now.”
He also expressed concern about the Authority's request to lease part of a wellhead site by Chiefland's new well. “We have a wellhead protection site,” Hartzog said. And as of October 1 we are going to tie into that well. Our goal there was to protect the city's water resources.”
Pomeroy said the city has $300,000 invested in the 33-acre wellhead, capable of pumping more than 1 million gallons a day. He said it is the leasing of part of the other 122 acres at the site that concerns him. “They may pump water from there to Gilchrist and Dixie counties,” he said. “I am opposed to it. We spent a lot of money to develop it.”
“I would like to see a provision (in the interlocal agreement) exempting the Chiefland wellhead site,” the mayor said.
He warned things would not be pleasant if Levy County joined the Authority only to find itself outvoted by Dixie and Gilchrist counties.
It was Commissioner Danny Stevens of Williston who first voiced concerns about the municipalities being affected by the Authority's interlocal agreement. “Levy County is unique in that all eight municipalities have water service and at least half have waste(water) service.”
He said he did not disagree with Levy joining the board. “But I don't want to limit municipalities.”
David Still, executive director of Suwannee River Water Management District, presented membership in the authority as a way for the tri-county area to claim and manage its water resources because, he said, the state will not do it for them and as a way to have a “larger voice” to obtain state and federal funding.
Commission Chair Nancy Bell of Chiefland disagreed with Still. “How is it going to protect us. It looks like to me it's a dissemination of power. What does it benefit this county?”
“Why is a regional authority better than the state?”
Still said the authority was better because it could go up to 10 miles outside its boundary to set its service area and he repeated that the state is not protecting Levy County's water interests. “No they're not. They are not protecting you today.” Still's officials have recently warned that development in Jacksonville and lower Georgia is threatening to siphon off and lower the levels of the district's water supply to support their growth.
“I beg to differ,” Bell said. “And when are they going to levy taxes for this … to me this is just a distribution of power, another way to get us out of the picture.”
Still told the county that if they joined they could define the service area to be covered and keep it out of municipal service areas. “When you have a seat you can define your service area.”
He also reminded the commissioners, “How about the other people in the county? How about other people in the county that would be served by having good, clean water?”
Stevens said, “What I want to see is our municipalities do what they want to do.”
Gilchrist County Commissioner Randy Durden told the board that they could join the Authority and “you don't have to give the authority a service area, but when it comes available, then you can set a service area.”