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Cities control the water tap now

The trend leaves the county dry as its municipal customers leave to manage their own water supplies.

Published February 16, 2004

Tarpon Springs officials last week unveiled a project they called one of the most far-reaching initiatives in city history - getting into the water supply business.

By building a water treatment plant and using city wells, city officials say, Tarpon Springs would no longer be forced to rely on buying water from Pinellas County or be held hostage to its soaring rates.

However bold, the plan is by no means unique in North Pinellas. Dunedin has supplied its own water for more than a decade.

Oldsmar is working toward becoming self-sufficient in two years. And last month Clearwater brought a reverse-osmosis water treatment plant online to reduce the city's reliance on water bought from the county.

The head of the county's utilities department laments the potential loss of municipal customers. But honestly, Pick Talley said, he can't blame them.

By installing reverse-osmosis treatment plants - which utilize mesh membranes to filter the brackish underground water - municipalities like Tarpon Springs might be able to supply their residents better water at a lower cost.

"That's not in dispute," Talley said.

"Their premise is sound," Talley said. "They should all consider it. If I were them, I would. . . . They have to weigh if they want to be in the water business."

The Tarpon Springs plan calls for a $36-million water supply system that ultimately would provide not only for all of the water needs of city residents but also a surplus of water that could be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits.

Oldsmar already is on its way.

The studies are in, said Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Beverland, and the findings are clear: it's cost-effective.

Oldsmar now buys about three-quarters of its water from St. Petersburg and the rest from the county.

"We're on a string with the water boards," Beverland said, "and whatever way they pull the strings, that's the direction we've got to go. This would allow us to be independent. That just makes sense to me."

Oldsmar has already set aside land off Commerce Boulevard for a reverse-osmosis plant, and Beverland said efforts soon will begin to seek federal grants to offset the $15-million cost to build it.

Last week, Safety Harbor opted out of a $25,000 study to piggyback on the Oldsmar system.

"The costs were going to be more than we knew we were going to pay though 2006," said Safety Harbor Mayor Pam Corbino. "We didn't think it was feasible to put millions into capital improvements if it did not reduce the cost of water."

Corbino also has concerns about the environmental impact of Oldsmar's proposal to dump the brine byproduct of the treatment process into Tampa Bay. The treatment process is expected to produce a million gallons a day of "concentrate" - 2-million gallons a day if Safety Harbor joined in, Corbino said.

Beverland said state regulators have so far been receptive to the plan to dump the concentrate into the bay, but "we need to do more studies." Another option is to inject the by-product into deep-water wells.

"We're not going to put anything in the bay that is going to hurt it," Beverland assured.

How to get rid of the concentrate is not an issue in Dunedin, which many look to as a model of water self-sufficiency.

Dunedin pumps about 5-million gallons a day from 29 wells spread around the city. About 1-million gallons of salty concentrate remains from the reverse-osmosis treatment. That concentrate is fed into the wastewater treatment plant, and ultimately used as reclaimed water.

Dunedin's water system gets visitors from not only around the state but also the entire country. The prime minister of Singapore even came once to check it out, said Irvin Kety, division director of Dunedin's water department.

Dunedin got into the water business with its $11-million treatment plant in 1992, largely in response to water quality problems. Over the years, as regional water rates have climbed, it has proven more economical as well.

Economics was the driving factor in Clearwater's decision to build an $8.1-million reverse-osmosis plant which came online in November.

That plant, and other city wells produce about 4-million gallons of water a day. The city still buys another 8-million to 9-million gallons a day from Pinellas County. But the reduced dependence on the county should allow the city to better protect residents against county rate hikes, said Andy Neff, public utilities director for Clearwater. The county already has preapproved water rate increases of 10 percent in each of the next three years.

Clearwater is now studying whether it can reduce the reliance on county water even further.

"As long as the economics work, it's good for the customers," Neff said. "As prices continue to escalate, the economic equation looks even more favorable over time."

The downside? If you operate a small system and a problem arises, said the county's Talley, it could knock out your whole system. And if municipalities like Oldsmar and Tarpon Springs plan to use the county as a backup, he said, the county might want to consider charging for that.

There's another potential downside, Talley said. If lots of municipalities decide to create their own water supply, it could cost remaining county customers a little more.

Not every city wants to take on public water systems. Largo Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert said there has been no discussion there of getting into the potable water business.

And in Safety Harbor, it was discussed, but only briefly, Mayor Corbino said. Corbino said she'd be very cautious about pumping water from under Safety Harbor, given its propensity for sinkholes.

Besides, she said, if Oldsmar goes through with its plant, it will be looking to sell excess water.

"We didn't shut the door (on Oldsmar) totally," she said.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly called Swiftmud, views the trend toward localizing water supplies as nothing but positive.

"In Tampa Bay, we are already looking for ways to reduce the stress on the regional water supply system," said Swiftmud spokesman Mike Molligan. "Anyone who gets off that system, we are certainly encouraged to see."

[Last modified February 16, 2004, 01:31:39]

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