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Desal no longer a dirty word

Desalination, pooh-poohed as risky and too expensive just a few years ago, has become "the great wet hope.''


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2001

Desalination, pooh-poohed as risky and too expensive just a few years ago, has become "the great wet hope."

CLEARWATER -- It wasn't so many years ago -- seven, to be exact -- that seawater desalination was a pariah among ideas for new water supplies in the Tampa Bay area.

Pick Talley, Pinellas County utilities director, predicted in 1994 that if his county were forced to replace its well fields with desalination plants and other alternatives to groundwater, the capital costs "could exceed a billion dollars."

Bruce Kennedy, acting general manager of the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, said, "desalination can easily be 25 times more expensive."

And St. Petersburg City Council member Bob Stewart said the desal process created a byproduct so salty that environmental regulators wouldn't allow it to be dumped anywhere.

That was Bob Stewart in 1994.

This is Bob Stewart today: Bring it on.

Through a convergence of events no one could have foreseen, seawater desalination has been transformed from the ugliest duckling in the flock of ideas to bring new drinking water sources to the region. Many now view it as a swan, and, in the opinion of some, we can't have too many swans.

Ground will be broken June 25 for the area's first seawater desalination plant, in southwest Hillsborough County. When the board of Tampa Bay Water, the region's water utility, meets Monday to decide on the next round of water projects, a second desal plant is likely to win approval, and maybe even a third.

"The turnaround for desal came through a series of events, including strides in both cost and water quality due to improvements in technology," said Stewart, now a Pinellas County commissioner and a member of the board of Tampa Bay Water.

"But the most compelling reason to turn to desal" Stewart added, "is that there aren't any alternatives to produce the quantity of new water we need within the requirement that we use local sources first."

There is broad regional agreement.

Pinellas officials acknowledge that their county has been the universal recipient when it comes to the region's water and must now build desal plants within its borders to contribute to the public supply.

Pasco County supports desal as a means to ease groundwater pumping in areas that have suffered environmental damage.

Even Hillsborough County, discontented because most new water projects are within its borders, says it is ready to talk about settling its dispute over desal.

"The bottom line is that to continue to draw from wells at the rate we've been going is unacceptable, and there's a new public awareness that this is so," said Hillsborough Commissioner Chris Hart.

At least some of the credit for the swing in opinion has to go to the region's unprecedented drought, now more than halfway through its third year.

"What has driven this desal train is drought," said Pasco Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, chairwoman of Tampa Bay Water. "People are looking for drought-proof water supplies." Hart, for one, is pushing for a future in which virtually all new water supplies in the region come from desalination sources. But Tampa Bay Water appears poised to take a more diversified approach that would include new surface water and new groundwater, in addition to new desal.

"I don't think it's prudent to rely entirely on one source for all new water," Stewart said. "We've been doing that for years, and look where it got us."

Fellow commissioner and Tampa Bay Water board member Susan Latvala agrees.

"Desal is the great wet hope for our future," Latvala said, "but if we use well fields and surface water prudently, in combination with desal, we should be able to strike the perfect balance."

For all the testing and scientific modeling, the first desal plant is 18 months from operation. Although confidence is high, officials want to see it work before declaring it an unmitigated success.

"We expect, we have confidence, that Desal One will go as expected," said Gene Heath, deputy executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud. "But confirmation is a good thing. Once we have confirmation, then we can talk about leaning more heavily on desal."

Swiftmud actually jumped on the desal bandwagon back in the years when others were scorning desal.

"The Pinellas-Anclote Basin Board began putting aside funds, about $500,000 a year, for desal back in 1994," said Roy Harrell, former chairman of the board of the water regulator. Swiftmud joined the basin board effort a year later, and the pot of funding available for desal quickly grew to $50-million.

"We couldn't give it away," Harrell recalled. "Then technology improved, competition in the field cut the costs, and once you added the Swiftmud dollars, the cost of a desal plant became comparable to a new well field."

In the end, Swiftmud will pay about half of the capital cost of $110-million to build the first desal plant, which will produce water at a wholesale cost of $1.71 per thousand gallons, down from nearly $8 projected in the mid '90s.

At the time, groundwater cost about $1 per thousand gallons, though Heath said it has become more expensive in recent years. The cost of desal will be blended into the cost of other water, and consumers will be charged a blended rate.

For all the excitement over desal among water planners, there are those who still aren't satisfied that it is safe for the environment. Save Our Bays and Canals, a citizen lobby from Hillsborough County, has filed a legal challenge to the first plant.

And Mike Miller, chairman of the Suncoast Sierra Club of Pasco and Pinellas, said he wants to see the strictest possible monitoring of the physical, chemical and biological impacts of the brine discharge from the plant into Tampa Bay. And he wants a written guarantee that operators of the plant will shut it down immediately if the brine discharge exceeds permitted levels.

"They said they will do that, but I defy you to find it in writing, and there's a question of how easily something like that could be litigated," Miller said.

Other veterans of the region's water wars say they have no fears about the safety of desal.

"It works all over the world," said Pasco water activist Gilliam Clark. "There's no reason it won't work here."

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