Voters to voice will on water
Tarpon voters decide Tuesday whether to authorize the city to issue bonds to finance a reverse-osmosis water treatment plant. It's just the first step of many.
By ROBIN STEIN
Published March 12, 2006
TARPON SPRINGS - City staff and consultants have spent more than three years studying whether Tarpon Springs has what it takes to build an independent drinking water system - the natural and economic resources and the technological capability.
This week's vote should reveal whether it has the political will.
On Tuesday, citizens will cast ballots on several referendum items, including two that would authorize the city to issue $45-million in bonds to finance land and construction of a reverse-osmosis water treatment plant.
Officials believe such an operation would wean the city from its reliance on external water providers.
"We're trying to provide our own customers with our own water," said City Manager Ellen Posivach.
For many years, the bulk of the nearly 3.5-million gallons of drinking water piped into city homes each day has originated from Pinellas County and Tampa Bay Water systems. The recent surge of growth across the region has made external suppliers more expensive and less reliable, Posivach said.
Rather than pass along the rising wholesale prices and weather the ongoing shifts in quality and treatment approaches, Posivach believes the city ought to build its own water-treatment plant.
City officials say a treatment plant would increase the cost of water, but not as much as if they continue to buy water from outside sources.
Approval of the water referenda would not give the project a green light. According to City Attorney John Hubbard, the vote represents the "the very beginning of the beginning" of the process.
Even if the majority of citizens votes yes on Questions 1 and 2 this week, Hubbard said, contracts to purchase land and begin construction would need to pass the City Commission. Moreover, pumping and discharge permits would have to withstand the scrutiny of several regulatory agencies.
"We are one of (only) four cities in the state that requires voter approval for revenue bonds," Posivach said of the Tarpon Springs charter.
Indeed, there are still key questions about the quantity and quality of the proposed water source, which city officials expect to answer in April when the results of a feasibility study are analyzed.
The reasons for going to the voters now, Posivach said, are both abstract and practical. Officials need to know if residents favor a project like this before spending any more money. If the vote indicates people want to proceed, land acquisition must begin.
She said rising property values are eating away at the city's ability to purchase land in the area north the Anclote River, where analysts identified 12 tracts that offered the best hydrogeology for the treatment plant.
"If it's feasible to go forward, it's better than wasting that year to begin construction on the building," Posivach said.
Formal negotiations with property owners cannot proceed without voter authorization, Hubbard said.
Over the past month, city officials and staff have hit the streets and the airwaves soliciting support for the water independence project, making personal presentations and answering questions from community groups, homeowners associations, and even city staff.
The basic framework for the proposed system was first laid out in February 2004, when Posivach and staff presented the City Commission with the Alternative Water Supply Plan.
The 1.5-inch thick document lays out a multi-staged plan for water self-sufficiency. The first step calls for upgrading and intensifying pumping of existing freshwater wells.
The second, and more significant step, entails building a reverse-osmosis (RO) plant that would convert brackish groundwater from aquifers beneath the city into 5-million gallons of drinking water a day.
Brackish water is fresh water into which salt water has intruded. Heavy groundwater pumping in Pinellas County years ago pulled so much of the fresh water from the ground that salt water from the Gulf of Mexico flowed in and contaminated the fresh water that remained in most places.
Reverse osmosis is a filtration process that feeds raw water, in this case brackish groundwater, through membranes to separate out sediment and impurities.
City officials said the waste product from the RO process would likely be pumped into the gulf through the discharge canal of the Progress Energy plant near the Pinellas-Pasco border, if all goes smoothly with the permitting process and Progress Energy officials approve.
Robert Oreskovich, the city's public utilities administrator who formerly oversaw four reserve-osmosis plants in North Carolina, said the technology is used by 1,200 water-treatment facilities in the country.
Reverse osmosis is common locally. The Southwest Florida Water Management District's 2001 Regional Water Supply Plan listed 28 plants in their 16-county district using the RO filters to convert brackish water.
Swiftmud provided $200,000 for Tarpon Spring's feasibility tests, but spokesman Michael Molligan said the testing grant should not be taken as indication that grants for the plant will be forthcoming.
Clearwater began operating a treatment plant using the process in 2003 and currently uses it to produce almost 3-million gallons of drinking water a day, about a fourth of the city's total demand.
In 1992, Dunedin opened one of the nation's earliest RO plants, which has been widely regarded as a success. Today, the system produces 4-million gallons of drinking water a day.
Preliminary tests of the water under Tarpon Springs indicates that it is probably saltier than the water beneath neighboring cities, but the quality won't be clear until the results of the feasibility study are known in April.
Oreskovich said the more brackish the water, the more expensive it is to filter.
TARPON SPRINGS WATER FACTS
AVERAGE DAILY USE: 3.3-million gallons a day
PEAK DAILY USE: 4.5-mgd
CAPACITY OF PROPOSED REVERSE-OSMOSIS PLANT: 6.5-mgd
PROJECTED WASTEWATER DISCHARGE: 1.5-mgd, or more
PROJECT PLANT COST: $32.2-million to $36.45-million
[Last modified March 12, 2006, 01:18:21]
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