Tampa set to become first U.S. city to tap sea for drinking water

Associated Press

January 6, 2003, 9:06 AM EST

TAMPA -- The nation's first sea water desalination plant built to serve as a primary source of drinking water is expected to begin providing water for residents here by the end of the month.

It is expected to reach full capacity by March, generating 25 million gallons a day of drinking water, officials say.

The plant, located at Tampa Electric Co.'s Big Bend power plant site on Tampa Bay, is a key part of the regional utility's plan to reduce wellfield pumping.

``That's why we want to get the plant operating as soon as possible,'' said Ken Herd, project manager for Tampa Bay Water.

The plant will draw the 44 million gallons of water it will use each day from the cooling water used for Tampa Electric's generators. The sea water is pushed through a series of filters then passes through membranes, leaving millions of gallons of fresh water and millions of gallons of brine. The brine, which is about twice as salty as the original sea water, flows back into the power plant's cooling water canal, where it is diluted.

Members of Save Our Bay Air and Canals, a group of mostly Apollo Beach residents who lost a legal bid to force the plant's owners to find another way to dispose of the brine, say they will be watching for any environmental problems.

Tampa Bay Water has tightened monitoring of the plant, and a $1 million program to detect whether the plant's operation is harmful to marine life is in place.

``If we saw significant effects which we didn't expect, we would cut back production or shut down the plant until we find out what's happening,'' Herd said.

A half-dozen studies show the plant shouldn't have any adverse impact on the Bay's salinity or sea life. Texas and California will also be watching the plant's progress as officials in those states consider whether to move ahead with desalination plants of their own, said Neil Callahan of R.W. Beck Inc., a consultant for Tampa Bay Water.

Key West has had a desalination plant for years, and one was built in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1992. Both are much smaller, and are used only for emergency supplies.