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5 years late, 4M gallons short
The desalination plant officially opens, but Murphy's Law throws cold water on the event.
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 26, 2008
APOLLO BEACH - More than four years late, the Tampa Bay Water Board celebrated the nation's largest seawater desalination plant Friday with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The $158-million plant - which cost $40-million more than expected - is now working the way it was supposed to when it first opened in 2003, board members said.
That said, the desal plant was not operating at full capacity Friday. Water officials say cold water is to blame.
The desal plant is next door to Tampa Electric Co.'s Big Bend power plant, and uses water from the bay that the power plant has already heated. The process is designed to take 40-million gallons of hot water a day from TECO, screen out the salt and produce up to 25-million gallons a day of drinking water.
To guarantee a steady supply of hot water, which passes through the filtering membranes more easily, the desal plant is connected to two of the four power-producing units of the Big Bend power plant.
Those two desal plant units are supposed to be the most reliable, said Ken Herd, Tampa Bay Water's operations manager.
However, Herd said, "Murphy's Law is in play."
Both of those units are offline, said TECO spokesman Rick Morera.
The first has been down since November for planned upgrades, and won't be running again until May, he said. The second has been down for a week due to a boiler tube failure, the company spokesman said.
TECO officials said they could not recall the last time those generating units were inoperable at the same time.
Because of the difficulty of using 60-degree water, the desal plant this week is producing 21-million gallons a day, not 25-million, said Jerry Maxwell, the utility's longtime general manager.
Maxwell, who is retiring next month after 12 years with the agency, said such complications are to be expected.
"Any time you do something other than pump groundwater out of the aquifer, you're increasing the complexity of the system tremendously," he said.
In a brief meeting prior to the ribbon cutting, the utility board voted to replace Maxwell with former New Port Richey City Manager Gerald Seeber. He will make $168,000 a year.
Seeber was originally selected last week during a meeting that was not advertised in the board's typical fashion. It was not attended by the public or any reporters, a move that Pat Gleason, who serves as Gov. Charlie Crist's special counsel for open government, said raised questions about whether the board violated Florida's open-government law.
So before approving Seeber's contract Friday, the board voted to "ratify" its decision from the prior meeting. Afterward, when asked why the board took that step, utility board chairwoman Susan Latvala had this to say to a reporter: "For your benefit."
Times staff writer Asjylyn Loder contributed to this report.