Options sought for desal failings
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Hassles with the Hillsborough desalination plant
force the region's water supplier to consider pumping - from
waterways, not underground.
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
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
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
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,
"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.