Options sought for desal failings

Hassles with the Hillsborough desalination plant force the region's water supplier to consider pumping - from waterways, not underground.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 18, 2003

CLEARWATER - Tampa Bay Water on Monday shelved its plans for an expensive new desalination plant in Pinellas County as well as a controversial project to pump water out of the ground at Cone Ranch in Hillsborough County.

Utility officials acknowledged that repeated problems with their new $110-million desal plant in Apollo Beach in southern Hillsborough convinced them not to expand that one or build another in the next decade.

"This isn't a really good time to be talking about more desal," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, a Tampa Bay Water board member.

Instead, the utility will pursue a complex plan to draw up to 15-million gallons of drinking water a day from the Alafia and Hillsborough rivers and the Tampa Bypass Canal, all in Hillsborough County.

Tampa Bay Water would replace what it takes out with millions of gallons in treated wastewater from Tampa's sewer plant. The wastewater would be put into the waterways so the flow into Tampa Bay would not be harmed. No wastewater would mix with drinking water.

Cost estimates for that plan run from $74-million to $124-million, depending on which waterway is used.

The plan was not embraced by all of the utility's board members. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio made it clear her vote for the plan was "by no means a wholesale endorsement." Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms agreed.

Utility director Jerry Maxwell acknowledged that the plan is challenging, partly because of past conflict between Hillsborough and Tampa over reclaimed water from Tampa's sewage treatment plant. But none of the utility's options are easy, he said.

"If (desal) had worked we would've had half a dozen configurations with desal in it," he said.

Eight months ago desal seemed like the wave of the future for Tampa Bay Water. A March ceremony featured area dignitaries toasting each other with the first water produced by the Apollo Beach plant.

But the company building the plant, Covanta Tampa Construction, flunked a two-week test that was supposed to show the plant was done. Membranes and other filters that screen impurities from 40-million gallons of salty water to produce 25-million gallons of fresh water tended to clog quickly.

Covanta failed to complete the test by Sept. 30, prompting Tampa Bay Water to declare the company in default of its contract. The utility board expected to be able to fire Covanta during its meeting Monday. But Covanta filed for bankruptcy in New York, freezing any action on its contract.

While Tampa Bay Water's attorneys work to get a New York judge to allow the utility to take back control of its plant, the plant has produced water sporadically but has yet to live up to expectations.

Meanwhile, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County officials are complaining about the increasing cost of water to customers from such alternative sources, which tend to be more expensive than water pumped from the underground aquifer.

Tampa Bay Water experts figure the region's thirst will increase by 8-million gallons a day by 2013, so the utility is searching now for any new sources of water. The Southwest Florida Water Management District, which oversees permits for new wells, opposes any projects that would involve pumping water out of the ground. Overpumping in the past decade drained lakes, devastated wetlands and dried up private wells in Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

Nevertheless, Tampa Bay Water included on its list of potential future projects pumping 8-million to 10-million gallons a day from beneath Cone Ranch in eastern Hillsborough County. The Cone Ranch proposal has long been a sore spot for Hillsborough officials. The ranch lies in an area already hurt by overpumping. Further pumping could harm the Hillsborough River, Tampa's principal water source.

At a June 2001 Tampa Bay Water meeting, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd warned board members there would be consequences if they did not drop Cone Ranch. This spring, Byrd pushed a bill through the House forbidding any pumping projects at Cone Ranch. The Senate did not take it up.

Tampa Bay Water officials told Byrd to back off and let them make their own decisions. When they made their choices of future projects to pursue Monday, Cone Ranch failed to make the cut.

Also left out was a proposed expansion of the Tampa Bay desal plant, since it has yet to begin full-fledged operations. And the utility dropped its pursuit of a proposed desal plant next to the Florida Power plant on the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Anclote River near Tarpon Springs.

Both desal options would drive the cost of water even higher, Latvala said. "We'll have to come back to desal someday," she said.

Given all the problems with the Apollo Beach plant, Tarpon Springs Mayor Frank DiDonato said he was not surprised at the decision. One of the Anclote plant's leading opponents, Doug Metko, agreed.

"We're exceedingly happy with that," said Metko, director of Florida Guides Association, a statewide fishing group that opposed the plant because of concerns that the plant's brine discharge would harm seagrass beds. "They've got such a fiasco going on down there. The waste of taxpayers' money is staggering."

Now the only new desal plant Tampa Bay Water will pursue is its Mid-Pinellas Brackish Water plant. The Pinellas Park plant would produce about 6-million gallons of water a day from 14 wells.

However, at a public hearing last month, two dozen nearby residents showed up voicing concerns about how the wells could cause sinkholes and lower property values.

- Times staff writers Candace Rondeaux and Maureen Byrne Ahern contributed to this report.