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Water project a sort of space exploration

Published July 13, 2007


If you've spotted a 100-foot-tall rig at the city's water reclamation facility, know that they aren't drilling for oil or water, but for something else very precious nonetheless.

Empty space.

Youngquist Brothers, a Fort Myers drilling company, is boring deep into the earth - possibly as far as 3,500 feet - to find cavernous areas where a salty brine can be disposed of, preventing it from seeping into fresh groundwater or environmentally sensitive areas such as Tampa Bay.

It's all part of Oldsmar's alternative water supply project - a proposed reverse-osmosis treatment plant that would turn brackish groundwater into clean drinking water.

The system removes salts and other minerals from the brackish water. To do that, however, the city must have a place to dispose of the brine, or concentrate.

Thus, the exploratory well.

Last week, a team of geologists and engineers met with the city's staff to detail its progress since drilling began about six weeks ago. To demonstrate its findings, the team showed a video taken with a lighted camera that scoped deep down into the well, which is currently about 750 feet deep.

"The preliminary results are consistent with what we expected to see," said Tim Curran, principal engineer for Boyle Engineering Corp., which is overseeing the project. "The ability to dispose of a byproduct tends to make or break a reverse-osmosis water supply program. All expectations are that this is going to work."

The team reported it was particularly pleased with the Avon Park rock formation found at about 650 feet, which tests showed had dense limestone, dolomite and clay formations, plus some Swiss-cheese-like caverns - perfect for containment.

The brackish source water runs between 70 to 200 feet deep. The team said that for every 100 gallons of source water, 75 gallons will be turned into drinkable water and 25 gallons will be byproduct.

"If this tests out well, like we think it will, we'll come back later and convert it the exploratory well to an injection well," Curran said.

The next step?

Drilling the production wells, likely to take place in early 2008. Bidding and construction of the plant should begin in 2009, with completion by 2010.

The city now purchases about 1.53-million gallons of drinkable water per day from Pinellas County. Having a plant of its own will accommodate future city growth and add quality drinking water capacity to declining regional supplies, staffers said.

The future plant, with an estimated capital cost of $16.6-million, is permitted to produce an annual average of 2-million gallons a day.

But with finances for cities statewide getting tighter, could it be one big pipe dream?

Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist both used the gubernatorial line-item veto to eliminate state funding for the project. Still, the city's staff remains optimistic.

"The city is working on a plan to fund it themselves through Penny for Pinellas and operating revenue," said John Mulvihill, Oldsmar's public works director. "Of course, each step is up for approval by the council, but they all seem in agreement that this should be done, assuming all regulatory issues are addressed.

"And we're always looking for more funding."

Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at

[Last modified July 12, 2007, 08:00:59]

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