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Drought demands new tactics

The regional water board will allow a giant siphoning of water from a sinkhole into the Hillsborough River, at an all-time low.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Alarmed by continued drought and dim prospects for meaningful rain, the region's largest water utility scrambled Monday to approve a variety of measures to deal with dry conditions.

Among other actions, the Tampa Bay Water board waived normal regulations and agreed to pump water from a sinkhole to replenish the Hillsborough River, which is flowing at an all-time low.

"It's an emergency, and I think it's critical we do everything we can to help," said Jerry Maxwell, general manager of Tampa Bay Water.

The board also decided Monday to continue with plans to build a seawater desalination plant on Tampa Bay, despite the financial collapse of one of the partners in the project.

These actions and others were clear signals of how seriously local officials are taking the protracted and stubborn drought, which has lasted 19 months and has dropped some lake levels and water levels in the Floridan Aquifer by 2 feet in the last year.

The board voted unanimously to waive normal procurement regulations for a giant siphon to relieve the stressed Hillsborough River.

The vote came after board members heard that the river, the city of Tampa's principal source of drinking water, was flowing at an all-time low of 13.8-million gallons a day.

Water consumption in Tampa and in Hillsborough County dropped on Sunday, but the drought is continuing to force tough decisions.

The utility obtained permission last Friday from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the region's water regulator, to sink pumps and build pipelines from a 200-foot-wide, 200-foot-deep sinkhole on Morris Bridge Road.

The project could cost $150,000 or more and will be paid for by the city of Tampa. The siphoning of up to 15-million gallons a day will continue until the rain begins.

The board also took steps Monday to help south-central Hillsborough County, where rapid growth is expected to create unprecedented water demand by the end of the year.

In response to pleas from Hillsborough officials, the board decided to bring one well of a planned new well field on line before the end of the year, augmenting supplies for that part of the county.

On the advice of its special counsel, the board also agreed it was appropriate to continue development of the seawater desalination plant in southern Hillsborough County.

The 20-million-gallon-a-day facility is scheduled to go into operation no later than Dec. 31, 2002, despite the Chapter 11 filing of the minority partner, Stone & Webster.

Special Counsel John Wilcox told the board that in the current business climate, with companies coming and going and merging, it was foreseeable that one company involved in providing water to the Tampa Bay area might have to be replaced.

The majority partner in the desal partnership, Poseidon Resources, assured the board it could continue with or without Stone & Webster.

"I realize this is a stressful juncture, but it is a situation we can handle," said Walter Howard, president and chief executive of Poseidon.

The board on Monday also began the process of notifying Swiftmud that another major component in the region's water development plans, a surface water treatment plant, will likely be late coming on line.

A legal challenge by south Hillsborough residents will delay scheduled completion from September of 2002 into 2003.

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