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Desal plant: trick or treat?

Officials say it will be ready for testing by Halloween, but they've been wrong before.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 21, 2007


CLEARWATER - Tampa Bay Water's long-delayed desalination plant should be ready for its final test by Halloween, an official from the contractor fixing the plant told the utility's board Monday.

That's a year after American Water Pridesa was supposed to finish fixing the $140-million plant, and more than four years after the Apollo Beach plant was supposed to be producing 25-million gallons of water a day.

Tampa Bay Water now needs the desal plant more than ever. Starting in January, it will be required to begin drastically scaling back the amount of water it pumps out of the underground aquifer. The desal plant is supposed to provide replacement water -- if it's working right.

"It's a very precarious time," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who chairs the regional utility's board.

Permitting and construction of the Apollo Beach plant, the largest in the United States, was launched in 1999, with the plant set to begin operating by 2003.

The plant was designed to take 40-million gallons of seawater a day from Tampa Bay, filter out the salt and turn it into 25-million gallons of drinking water.

But it has been plagued by problems, including the discovery that many of the plant's water pumps had rusted.

Company desalination manager Kent Turner acknowledged Monday that the repair of the plant has taken far longer than anyone thought. "I know you've had a lot of people stand in front of you and give you a lot of dates," he told the utility board.

So when he told them that the plant would be ready for a crucial operational test known as the "acceptance test" by the end of October, he said it depends on everything going as planned.

The desal plant produced its first 3-million gallons in March 2003, but two months later it flunked its acceptance test.

The problem has been in the pretreatment process, which removes impurities before the briny water is pumped through membranes to remove salt.

Although the plant was producing near its capacity, the expensive membranes were fouling far too quickly, which could wear them out too soon and drive up the price of water. The company that built the plant, Covanta, was unable to fix it to the utility's satisfaction.

American Water Pridesa, the German-Spanish consortium that won the bidding to take over, promised to complete the $29-million repair job by October 2006. It missed that deadline, a second one in December 2006, a third in March. Predictions it would finish by spring of this year proved wrong, too.

Turner has said the fate of the desal industry, and the future of his company, hinge on the Apollo Beach plant's success.

So, too, does the future of Tampa Bay's water supply, utility officials said. Tampa Bay Water's state permit for pumping currently limits it to an average of 122-million gallons a day over the span of a year, and it's currently pumping an average of 114-million gallons, said senior manager Alison Adams.

But the permit requires that Tampa Bay Water cut its draining of the aquifer to a yearly average of 90-million gallons a day by the end of 2008. It means that "by Jan. 1, 2008, we need to start ratcheting that back down so that by Dec. 31 we'll be at 90-million gallons," Adams said.

"Where are you going to get the difference?" utility board member and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker asked.

It was supposed to come mostly from the desal plant, Adams said. "We should all go pray for rain."

[Last modified August 21, 2007, 00:16:02]

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