St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Water costs, quality to rise

Plans already exist to change where Pinellas water comes from and how it is treated, but the county wants to take water treatment a step further.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2001

Plans already exist to change where Pinellas water comes from and how it is treated, but the county wants to take water treatment a step further.

For a century, the water that Pinellas County residents drink has been piped up to civilization from the deep dark caves of the Floridan Aquifer.

That's about to change.

Next fall, Pinellas County water customers will get their first taste of river water. Not to mention desalinated seawater. And if that's not enough, starting next May, the water will be treated with a different disinfectant.

The water will meet all federal health standards and will be similar to the city of Tampa's water, which already contains Hillsborough River water and the new disinfectant, chloramine, rather than chlorine. Other Tampa Bay Water governments plan to use it.

But will it be good enough for Pinellas?

Pinellas County officials say no.

"We have the potential for having serious water quality issues, particularly with taste, odor and color, with the water from Tampa Bay Water," said Pick Talley, Pinellas utilities director.

County commissioners have decided they want extra treatment for county water customers. And they say not even a $30-million plant they first considered to better blend the water will be good enough.

Instead, the county is working on plans for an advanced water treatment plant that will cost $70-million to $100-million. Next month, commissioners will be asked to give the go-ahead to design the plant, which would serve residents of unincorporated areas, Largo, Kenneth City, Seminole, beach communities, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor and part of Oldsmar.

"I'm convinced we need to do additional treatment," said Commissioner Susan Latvala, who also sits on the board of Tampa Bay Water. "The composition of the water is different."

The commission's other water board member, Bob Stewart, was one of two commissioners who cast an initial vote against the plant this month. Stewart said he still has too many questions to support the plant.

"There's probably nothing more important in the business of what we do" than providing safe water, Stewart said. "The question is providing the right quality at the right cost."

Pinellas utilities officials say the more highly treated water would be safer, not only from bioterrorists but also from dangerous bacteria and other chemicals that can enter the water supply on their own. It also would taste and smell better, and have fewer discoloration problems, they say.

That's the good news.

But even if Pinellas starts design work next month, the water plant won't be finished for four years -- even though Tampa Bay Water's new supply starts next year.

And the water will cost more. Pinellas officials now estimate the average water customer, who pays $20 to use 8,000 gallons of water per month, will pay about $3 more each month. The building cost also would drain the utility department's $130-million reserve fund.

Robert M. Powell, director of the Pinellas County Utilities lab, said he doesn't like the way Tampa water tastes.

"I know I'm in the city of Tampa if I go to a drinking water fountain," he said.

More important, Powell says, the new Pinellas water wouldn't be safe enough without the extra treatment.

By adding the surface water to its sources, Tampa Bay Water will increase supplies and depend less on groundwater.

But surface water usually contains more organic material, such as decaying leaves and animal waste. And when chlorine combines with such material, it forms low levels of compounds that are carcinogenic. The best-known of these is chloroform.

The Environmental Protection Agency wants utilities to reduce the levels of those compounds. That gave Tampa Bay Water two choices: build a plant to take out the organic material before adding chlorine or build a less expensive plant that filters out less organic material and use a different disinfectant, chloramine, in its water lines.

In early 2000, Tampa Bay Water chose chloramine. Chris Owen, who supervises water quality assurance there, stressed that water treated with chloramine would meet all quality standards and said that chloramine has some advantages. It stays in the pipeline longer, so less disinfectant is needed, and studies have shown that it kills some types of bacteria better.

About 30 Florida utilities, including Miami-Dade, already use it. And Owen prefers the taste.

"With chloramines, people typically don't notice the taste of the disinfectant," she said. "You can't taste that chlorine taste."

That's a plus for Bill Johnson, utilities director for the city of St. Petersburg.

"Sometimes there's a chlorine taste in the north end of the city," he said.

Johnson said that the switch to chloramine will be "challenging" but that St. Petersburg doesn't need an additional treatment plant because it already softens its water, making it less likely to have problems with color and smell.

Owen pointed out that the utility's groundwater contains some organic material, so Tampa Bay Water might eventually have switched to chloramine even without turning to surface water.

Powell said Tampa Bay Water's new plant will be very good but won't remove enough organic material. That material reacts with chloramines to form chemical compounds as well, he said. The EPA doesn't regulate those compounds, but Powell says too little is known about their health effects.

"Those uncertainties are where Pinellas County is uncomfortable," Powell said. "There's a risk there. And it's a risk we don't have to bear if we remove the organics."

So Pinellas wants to build a reverse osmosis plant. It will push water through a series of membranes, filtering out organic material and bacteria. Then Pinellas would add chlorine.

Powell and Talley prefer chlorine to chloramine. Chlorine is a stronger disinfectant, killing most bacteria far more quickly than chloramine does. After Sept. 11, that has become even more important, they said.

A Pinellas plant also would make the water less likely to corrode the inside of the pipes, which gives the water a red or brown tint.

Pinellas utilities has consulted with scientists at USF and an Eckerd College board of retired professionals. Both groups recommended the plant.

Talley said that even if Pinellas had started work on the plant the day Tampa Bay Water decided on chloramine, it couldn't have finished the plant by May 2002, when the change begins. Instead, the utility has spent a year consulting with experts, studying its options and building support, he said.

Last month, the utility also surveyed 766 county residents. When they were told the cost, 61 percent backed the membrane plant. Another 21 percent supported the cheaper blending plant. Seven percent didn't want either, and 12 percent didn't know. (Percentages were rounded.) What that shows, Talley said: "Pinellas County has been willing to accept a higher cost for a higher quality."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.