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    Is it safe to drink the water?

    That's the question on everyone's lips. Experts say yes. Even if you're an iguana. But fish owners better beware.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 3, 2002


    Tampa Bay Water scientist Chris Owen has heard all kinds of questions about what will happen next week to Pinellas and Pasco water.

    But the one about the iguanas took even her by surprise.

    For the record, no, the change in the water won't affect iguanas.

    Most people won't need to do anything next week, when Tampa Bay Water switches to using chloramine instead of chlorine to disinfect water in central Pasco and most of Pinellas.

    Chloramine is chlorine mixed with ammonia.

    The biggest impact will be for tropical fish owners, who will need to use different chemicals in their aquariums, and for kidney dialysis centers, which will need to change their filtration process.

    The water may taste different to some people.

    "To my palate it tastes better," said Owen, water quality assurance officer for Tampa Bay Water. "You don't have that free chlorine taste."

    But Pick Talley, utilities director in Pinellas, said that sometimes people might smell ammonia for a few seconds when they first turn their taps on.

    photo
    [Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
    Mark Maples of Southern Power & Controls works Thursday on the ammonia transfer pump control panel for the new chloramine unit at Tampa Bay Water's Cypress Creek Water Treatment Plant in Pasco County.

    Others say there's no difference. Brenda Draper is manager at Hungry Howie's in northwest Hillsborough County, where the water got chloramine last fall.

    "We're using it in our sauce and our dough, and we haven't noticed any change whatsoever," she said.

    Patti Anderson, director of St. Petersburg's public utilities department, said she hopes the city's water will keep its distinctive taste after the switch. The taste comes from the city's lime softening plant, not from the chlorine, she said.

    "We've always had a reputation for having good-tasting water," Anderson said. "We're hoping to stay there."

    Water taste is a very subjective thing, Anderson said. Her department already has gotten four or five calls from people complaining that their water smells like ammonia -- even though the water hasn't changed yet.

    Tampa Bay Water is switching because when chlorine mixes with certain organic compounds found in the area's water, it creates low levels of hazardous chemicals, such as chloroform. Federal regulators are cracking down, and soon will allow less of those substances in drinking water.

    So Tampa Bay Water is adding ammonia to its water. The ammonia will bond with the chlorine, forming chloramine.

    Thirty other Florida utilities already use chloramine, including Tampa and Miami. So do many other utilities around the country, including Denver, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

    "Chloramines have been around for a long, long time, and are well-understood and well-documented," said Bill Lauer, an engineer with the American Water Works Association, a professional organization for water utilities.

    Lauer estimated that as many as 30 percent of the nation's utilities use chloramine and said that more utilities are switching for the same reason as Tampa Bay. When Northwest Hillsborough switched, the utility got no complaints linked to the change, said Mike McWeeny, Hillsborough's utilities director.

    At Tampa Bay Water's Cypress Creek plant, utilities workers have built two 1,900-gallon tanks that hold ammonia mixed with water. This week, they've been testing the system and making final preparations.

    Utilities workers around Pinellas and Pasco also have been testing their plants and flushing city pipes. Some of the flushing could cause discolored water in some areas, but utilities officials said they expect few such problems.

    At 8 a.m. Monday, utilities workers will open the valves, and ammonia will begin flowing into the pipe of treated water just before it leaves the plant. There won't be any fancy mixing or blending, said Glenn Yaney, the plant's operations manager. The ammonia will bond with the chlorine as the water flows through the pipe.

    Just like that, the new water will start its journey to people's homes. Some homes in Central Pasco County will get the new water within a few hours, while some in south St. Petersburg may not have new water flowing from their taps until Friday afternoon. The water will go to all Pinellas residents except those in Belleair and Dunedin.

    West Pasco residents will switch to chloramine late next year.

    Owen expects few problems when the switch occurs. Her biggest worry is for people who own fish and don't heed the utility's warnings. That's because chloramine, like chlorine, is toxic to fish. Fish gills absorb those chemicals into the bloodstream.

    But fish owners can use chemicals to remove the chlorine, or just let the water sit out while the chlorine dissipates. Chloramine doesn't dissipate that way, and fish owners need to use different chemicals to remove chloramine. Some fish owners, especially those who own expensive saltwater fish, buy reverse osmosis filters. But for most people, the cheaper chemicals will work just fine, pet store owners said.

    The level of ammonia in the water will be very low, so the water will be fine for plants and for most people with sensitive skin, Owen said. She said people with special sensitivities should check with a doctor just to be sure.

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