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Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Once-troubled desal plant gets mixed reviews

TAMPA - The nation's largest desalination plant cost $158 million, was plagued with problems and shoddy construction that caused six years of delays, sat idle for two years and produces the most costly water coming out of your faucet. Since 2007, the desalination plant owned by regional utility Tampa Bay Water has shed its boondoggle image and produced 18 billion gallons of water. The plant, near the Tampa Electric Co. Big Bend power plant in Apollo Beach, can produce up to 25 million gallons a day of drinking water by removing salt from water pumped out of Tampa Bay. The 25 million gallons daily helped the Tampa Bay region get through last year when the main springtime water source dried up and will be leaned on again when repairs begin on the region's reservoir possibly in two years.
Still, views of its worth by members of Tampa Bay Water's board are mixed and the likelihood of picking a second desalination plant when the region needs more water is not certain. For some board members, the desalination plant is a costly source that drives up water bills. Others view it as an environmental savior worth the money and headaches. The differing views mostly depend on geography. Pasco County's two representatives on the Tampa Bay Water board praise the desalination plant as a water source that relieves strains on wellfields clustered in Pasco and northwest Hillsborough. When the desalination plant was first considered in the late 1990s, wellfields were the main source of the region's drinking water but residents and the environment around those wells paid a price for providing water. Lakes and wetlands dried. Century-old cypress trees toppled. The ground dried and contracted and neighbors of the wellfields complained their house walls cracked and foundations settled. Water from the desalination plant relieved some strain on the wellfields and allowed environmental damage to heal. "It's hard to put a true value on it. How do you put a value on saving the environment?" said Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader. "Look in Pasco County, how some wellfields recovered. In Pasco County it was worth the money." Pasco Commissioner Ann Hildebrand was on the utility board when the desalination idea was hatched and still represents the county. "I look at it as one of two representatives of Pasco County where there was the most severe environmental damage. We saw the devastation that occurred," she said. "Am I happy with the delays and additional cost? Heavens no. Nobody is," she said. Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, one of the county's two board members, said problems with desalination and Tampa Bay Water's reservoir are evidence the utility moved too fast. "I think it is an example of rushing to a project. When we see we have problems with desal and the reservoir, that's the result of rushing. But in drought conditions, it's priceless," he said. Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe, the county's second representative on the utility board, said building the desalination plant was the right choice. "We were using 150, 160 million gallons of groundwater a day. It was destroying people's property," he said. Using groundwater may be less expensive, but damaging the environment carries a price. "While it may be cheaper up front to pump water, there's also an environmental cost," Sharpe said.
In St. Petersburg, where the price of water is a concern, the cost of desalinated water is an issue. St. Petersburg Council Member Karl Nurse said the utility board could have looked at other ways to get the water when deciding on a desalination plant that originally was supposed to cost $110 million. "I'm the newest member of the board, but from my perspective there were lots of things we could have done, conservation wise or efficiency-wise," he said. "I'm a big believer that you sort out your choices from the cheapest to the most expensive. We chose the most expensive before I would have liked," Nurse said. Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield pointed out that desalinated water is the most expensive but acknowledged it belonged in the utility mix of sources. It shouldn't be run at capacity all year. Desalinated water costs about three times the price of groundwater and twice as much as river water. 'You want to mix the three. My goal is to keep water rates as low as possible," Brickfield said. His counterpart on the utility board, Pinellas Commissioner Susan Latvala, said the plant is a necessary element in the region's water supply because it is the only source not affected by drought. "It's our ace in the hole, our silver bullet and available when nothing else is. It serves a very valuable purpose in our system. That's the key," she said. When it comes time for Tampa Bay Water to find an additional supply, desalination will be on the short list of options. The other likely option would be another reservoir. The selection of desalination is not certain, even if a new plant can avoid the minefield of problems the existing plant encountered. Construction started in 2001 but the plant wasn't fully operational for more than six years, including sitting idle for two years. Along the way, two companies hired to build it went into bankruptcy and the cost mushroomed from the original estimate of $98 million to $110 million that produced a plant that never ran as designed. When a third company was hired to fix the plant's problems, the price ballooned to $158 million. Despite problems getting the plant to work, some, like Hildebrand and Higginbotham, favor building a new plant or expanding the existing one. "We will not shy away from it," Higginbotham said. But Krause would not be easy to convince. "I'll be the hardest one to sell," he said. Sharpe said the cost for desalination might make him wary of expanding the existing plant or building another. "Desalination is very expensive. If we wanted to bump it up to 35 million gallons, what we have to pay for energy and chemicals is very high," he said. "I think we might see an additional reservoir could make more sense. That might be better than another desalination plant," Sharpe said.

Reporter Neil Johnson can be reached at (813) 259-7731.

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