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Water board votes to study a second desalination plant

The vote rules out a Hillsborough location. The board also will study a system of underground storage of surface water.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000


CLEARWATER -- In a push to further reduce groundwater pumping, Tampa Bay Water board members Monday agreed to reconsider a second seawater desalination plant.

The vote had Pasco County Commissioner Steve Simon ready to take a victory lap.

"I already ran. I may run again -- not very fast -- but I feel pretty good," said Simon, who has fought for a less groundwater-dependent regional master water plan.

The Tampa Bay Water board's vote means consultants immediately will begin extensive environmental, financial and other studies of a second desal plant, which the board agreed not to put in Hillsborough. That county is home to the first proposed desal plant.

Assuming the second desal plant clears the feasibility studies, water board members will select it before they consider three proposed wellfields when they pick their final water projects next year. Two of those groundwater projects are in Hillsborough and one is in Pasco County.

"I'm pleased. I think it's a shift in thinking," Simon said.

The board also agreed -- at Pasco's request -- to study a system of storing surface water underground to augment or replace current plans for a mammoth reservoir in Hillsborough County.

The Pasco alternate water plan has spanned several drafts, each the result of a meeting with or memo from general manager Jerry Maxwell. He predicted that earlier drafts would fail to produce enough water by the state's 2002 and 2007 deadlines to reduce groundwater pumping. Most of that pumping is in Pasco.

A second desal plant would eliminate any need for three proposed groundwater pumping sites to produce the final 20-million gallons a day that Tampa Bay Water needs before 2007, county officials say.

The drawback? Tampa Bay Water officials say the plan, given the costs of desalination, will cost between 7 cents and 11 cents more per 1,000 gallons than the current master water plan.

But that wasn't enough to keep Hillsborough County Commissioner Chris Hart from voting for the plan.

"I understand costs. But we have a natural environment to protect. If it's 7 cents more compared to pumping our lakes and ponds dry, that's not a choice," Hart said.

Pinellas County Commissioner Robert Stewart voted against the Pasco plan, saying he had many questions about seawater desalination. As an example, he cited ongoing problems with a desal plant in Southern California.

"If it were producing a drop of water, it would be producing 8 (million gallons a day). But it's not producing a drop of water. It's shut down," Stewart said. Stewart was joined in his vote against the Pasco plan by fellow Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms.

Storms said she couldn't support the Pasco plan unless she had assurances the second desal plant would not be anywhere on Tampa Bay. That separate motion failed.

While acknowledging that Pasco's amendments make the master water plan a little heavy on desalination, water board member and Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda said the board is left with little choice -- given the growth rate in the area.

"Maybe we're putting a lot of eggs in one basket, but that's the only basket we've got," Miranda said.

In other action, the water board approved a contract for a large new water treatment plant to be built in Tampa -- the contract the board agreed to table last month until after its workshop on the Pasco County alternate water plan.

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