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    Rules will change water's taste

    Pinellas is under an EPA deadline to change how its water is treated. Now, for better or worse, it will taste like Tampa's.

    By LEONORA LaPETER and ADAM C. SMITH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- The city that has won state and national awards for its drinking water may be forced in another year to treat its water the way the city of Tampa does

    In the opinion of Vanessa Morris, a waitress at the Denny's on Tampa's N Dale Mabry Highway, that's bad news for St. Petersburg.

    "It tastes like sewer water, like it's got rust in it or something," said Ms. Morris, who recently moved from Tennessee. "Customers complain about it all the time. They say the water tastes funny. But it's not Denny's water, it's Tampa's."

    St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, like other municipalities and counties across the country, are under a federal Environmental Protection Agency deadline to reduce the amount of byproduct that develops when chlorine mixes with nutrients in the water.

    Studies have shown these byproducts can cause birth defects, miscarriages, even cancer. St. Petersburg now uses chlorine to treat its water and does not meet the coming federal standards.

    The cure is a new type of disinfection -- a combination of ammonia and chlorine called monochloramine. On Thursday, St. Petersburg's City Council learned they have little choice but to make the $500,000 switch to monochloramine. The Pinellas County Commission has already directed their staff to work toward making the same switch.

    Tampa started adding monochloramine 19 years ago, and its utilities director, Dave Tippen, said Pinellas County residents will notice the change.

    "St. Petersburg's water will taste different," Tippen said. "It will have a very slight ammonia taste. . . . But I think Tampa water is good tasting because I'm used to it."

    St. Petersburg's water is frequently cited by national experts for its cleanliness, odor and taste.

    On the other hand, Consumer Reports last year singled out Tampa's water for "hints of chlorine, earthy, swampy and mineral flavors."

    St. Petersburg has five options, ranging in cost from $500,000 to $60-million, to solve the chlorine byproduct problem. But because the area's largest water wholesaler, Tampa Bay Water, has also decided to use the monochloramination method, the cost to St. Petersburg would likely be prohibitive unless the city also chooses monochloramine.

    The federal government does not require the higher level of treatment until December 2003, but Tampa Bay Water intends to begin treating its water by May 2002. Because St. Petersburg gets its water from Tampa Bay Water, that forces the city to meet that deadline as well. Public utilities director Bill Johnson acknowledged it would be a difficult deadline to meet, considering the City Council hasn't held an official vote on which method it will use.

    "We'll try our best," he said.

    The monochloramination method would cost St. Petersburg $500,000 for an ammonia feed and another $400,000 a year in operating costs. This could increase water costs 3 cents per 1,000 gallons.

    Some City Council members complained at Thursday's workshop that they hadn't been involved earlier in the decisionmaking by Tampa Bay Water even though St. Petersburg and Pinellas County are together the largest users of the water provided by Tampa Bay Water.

    Mayor David Fischer represented the city on the Tampa Bay Water governing board until he left office this month.

    "I love Mayor Fischer but none of us here on the council knew that the decision had been made by Tampa Bay Water to go with monochloramination disinfection," said council Chairwoman Rene Flowers after Thursday's workshop.

    Other council members had concerns about changing the treatment of the water supply. In addition to a different taste and odor, kidney dialysis patients and residents with tropical fish will be forced to take additional measures before using the new tap water. "I don't think we as a council are sold on monochloramination," Foster said. "The greatest risk of change is in the odor and taste. That just bugs the stew out of me. Now we get a glass of water out of the tap and there's no taste and odor."

    Still, Foster said, "the train has already left the station . . . and we really don't have any choice."

    Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart lamented that the City Council was taken by surprise by the need for the change and called it "a colossal breakdown in communication."

    Newly elected St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker promised that as the city's new Tampa Bay Water member, he would improve communication with the council "so we don't get caught by surprise any more."

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