Leaks plague water system

Tampa's reclaimed water system is only 5 years old, but clogs and low pressure haunt the system.

Published June 6, 2007

TAMPA -- The city's reclaimed-water system has been plagued with problems from the beginning.

Construction was behind schedule and over budget. Contractors damaged a sewer line when trying to install a pipe under Seddon Channel. And a company hired to install pipes in the West Shore area abandoned the project.

Once in place, fewer than half of the people who could connect to it did so. And many of those who receive the water face problems with clogs and low water pressure, said Brad Baird, the city's Water Department director.

Now, Mayor Pam Iorio wants to nearly double water rates over the next five years --- to $22.61 per month for the typical residential water customer from about $11.55 a month -- with about 20 percent of the extra revenue devoted to fixing and expanding the reclaimed-water system.

Some of the money will be used to flush pipes littered with debris, which Baird said causes the clogs and low pressure.

"I want to make sure that this system operates like it's designed to operate before we go full bore to sign everybody up and then before we expand the system as well," he said.

Baird believes the debris problem has its root in the sewer pipe break during construction in 2003. That prevented the system from every being flushed properly, he said.

Flushing the pipes also will help the city determine the extent of leaks that have been discovered in the 5-year-old, $28-million system.

"We would not expect to have leaks on such a new system," said Water Department spokesman Elias Franco. "We need to get in there and find out what's causing it."

Pinning down who's to blame for the problems will be difficult, said Baird, because seven contractors worked on the 120-mile network of pipes that carries water through parts of Tampa. But there is a lawsuit pending against the company that broke the sewer line.

Then-Mayor Dick Greco approved the project in 2000 during a drought, saying that a survey showed enough people would pay to use the water, which can be used without restrictions, to pay for the cost of construction. But it hasn't worked out that way.

The cost of the water is about the same as potable water, and the connection costs about $500 at best, offering no financial incentive to hook up.

So only about half of the 5,500 customers along the lines have connected to the system. The city now uses potable water revenue to pay the debt for the construction.

The program was deemed such a failure that in 2005 the city abandoned plans for a second phase to reach more residential neighborhoods. Instead, it focused on finding large industrial users for the water.

Possible customers include TECO and a proposed ethanol plant in the Port of Tampa, according to Steve Daignault, the city's administrator for utilities and public works.

Expanding the system will cost about $40-million, Daignault said.

Despite the problems, city officials say it's worthwhile to fix and broaden the system.

The city currently dumps about 60-million gallons of treated wastewater each day into Tampa Bay. That's water that conceivably could irrigate lawns and lessen demand on drinking water, Franco said.

Tampa water customers use about 80 million to 100 million gallons of water a day, he said, with nearly half of it sprinkled and sprayed onto lawns.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.