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Water plant challenge will be heard July 7

The early hearing means completion of the Hillsborough project won't necessarily be delayed as some had feared.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 2000


CLEARWATER -- A daylong Tampa Bay Water meeting was filled with ideas -- some intriguing, some bizarre -- for saving water projects already on the table and finding new sources to help keep the utility from violating its pumping permit.

For starters, an early hearing has been scheduled on a challenge to construction of a water treatment plant in Hillsborough, administrators said Monday. Tampa Bay Water had feared the challenge by Save Our Bay and Canals would delay completion of the plant by as much as nine months beyond the scheduled startup of Dec. 31, 2002.

It still might. But if the administrative law judge who hears arguments for four days beginning July 7 dismisses the challenge, the delay will have been negligible. If he takes the case under advisement, a ruling would come in October or November. The contractor, U.S. Filter, might be able to make up that time.

"On a very preliminary basis, we are in discussions with the contractor on expediting the construction of the treatment plant," said Jerry Maxwell, general manager of Tampa Bay Water. "There will be a cost associated with that, obviously, and that cost could be significant."

Time is critical because the regional pact signed by the six-member governments of Tampa Bay Water requires new water sources to be on line at the end of 2002 so pumping from the utility's 11 stressed well fields can be reduced and some extensive environmental damage reversed.

Missing the deadline could jeopardize most, if not all, of the $183-million the Southwest Florida Water Management District has pledged to help defray the capital costs of new water projects and to underwrite conservation efforts.

The utility also does not want to violate its well field pumping permit issued by the water management district, which caps withdrawals at an average 158-million gallons a day over 36 months. Such a violation, projected under current conditions to occur in late March or early April, potentially could cost Tampa Bay Water huge fines.

Pumping levels have reached all-time highs because of the severity of the drought, which has spanned 20 months. The utility delivered 284-mgd on average in May and 292-mgd the first week in June before the rain began.

This is almost twice the limit spelled out in the Swiftmud permit covering the 11 well fields.

The penalty is a fine of up to $10,000 a day.

In an attempt to ease ground water demand as quickly as possible, Tampa Bay Water is contemplating an agreement with the city of Tampa, which is in the process of enlarging and reconditioning its downtown treatment center. With some tweaking, the plant could produce 20-mgd to 40-mgd more than the city needs during wet periods for sale to the regional utility.

Tampa suggested that last year, but Tampa Bay Water decided to build its own plant.

City Council member Charlie Miranda angrily warned officials then that if they got into trouble, they shouldn't come back to Tampa, hats in hands. "That's what I told them a year ago February," Miranda said Monday. "But what can you do? You refuse to feed a crying baby?"

Tampa Bay Water also is exploring an agreement to reuse water from Crystals International Inc., a Plant City company that freeze-dries fruit and vegetable purees and concentrates them into powders. Its vacuum system is driven by 3.5-million gallons daily of groundwater.

"The water never touches the product, never gets contaminated in any way, but until recently, we have had no option but to pump it into a canal where it is lost," said Jan McLean, a company official. "We've been talking to Tampa Bay Water since last fall, but it's a slow process."

There was some good news on the pumping front. Although the utility was using water at a rate of 292-mgd early in June, demand dropped to 234-mgd for the period of June 12-18, after the rains began.

Still, the Floridan Aquifer is 4-feet below where it was this time last year. Surface water levels are a foot below a year ago; lake levels are down 2.5 feet. The rains, so far, have done little to change things.

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