$1.5 million to squirrel-proof Tampa water plant
The squirrel that shut down Tampa's water supply in February taught the city and Tampa Electric Co. a lesson – a $1.5 million lesson.
The city of Tampa and TECO will spend that much to prevent a repeat of the power outage that led to a citywide loss of water pressure and a weekend-long boil-water notice.
The bulk of the spending will come from TECO, nearly $1 million to harden the two power lines feeding the water plant against both animals and the elements, Bill Whale, TECO's senior vice president for electric and gas delivery, told City Council members on Thursday.
The list of improvements includes burying the last 1,000 feet of both lines where they enter the water plant off East Sligh Avenue in the city's northeast corner. TECO will also add guards at substations on 30th Street and Yukon Street to keep wildlife away from crucial electrical components, Whale said.
The company will also add a power line strong enough to survive winds up to 140 mph, equal to a Category 4 hurricane.
The improvements are likely to take until early next year to finish, said TECO spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs.
A squirrel is believed to have set off a chain of events Feb. 22 that knocked out water pressure about an hour for more than 500,000 city water customers.
Around 5:30 a.m., city officials believe, the squirrel chewed into one of two high-voltage lines serving the water plant. While that break was being repaired, water plant operators drew their total electrical load through the second line, causing it to heat up and sag.
About mid-day, the line had sagged enough to cause a short-circuit, destroying a switch that should have triggered the water plant's three back-up diesel generators. The generators had to be powered up by hand, which took half an hour. It took another half-hour to restore water pressure across the city.
Water Department chief Brad Baird told council members his staff won't try to run the entire plant off a single supply line again. Instead, they'll follow their summer strategy year-round: turning to the generators any time part of its power supply is temporarily cut, whether the culprit is a storm or a squirrel.
The water plant staff will also spend months testing the components of the plant's internal electrical system to make sure everything's in good condition and fits with TECO's system.
“We want to make sure the two electrical systems are compatible,” Baird said.
The switch that failed Feb. 22 was contaminated by industrial chemicals stored nearby. The contamination may have contributed to the switch failing, so the city will move the chemicals or enclose the replacement switch to protect it, Baird said.
The Daystarter: Stormy forecast for Tampa Bay; watering restrictions back in place; new DEP head denies political conflict; peering ahead to Super Bowl LV in Tampa