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    Questions cloud water plant plan

    A reverse-osmosis plant would bring 2-million more gallons to the city a year. Officials are balking at the lack of a price.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- Most city commissioners like the idea of constructing the city's first reverse-osmosis treatment plant to boost the city's water production.

    But commissioners said they will not approve the project Thursday if they don't have their many questions answered.

    Their major complaint is that Tampa Bay Water, the region's water supplier, wants the city to agree this week to pay $270,000 to help design the water plant -- without knowing how much the city will have to spend to build and run the plant.

    Preliminary estimates are that the plant will cost up to $8-million for construction and annual maintenance could cost as much as $1.2-million. Tampa Bay Water would build the plant and sell it to the city to run.

    "I still don't know, is this good for the city?," Commissioner J.B. Johnson said following a Monday commission workshop. "I feel like I'm between a rock and a hard place, and it would be better to go more slowly in this."

    Yet time is not on the region's side, Don Polmann, Tampa Bay Water's director of science and engineering, told commissioners on Monday.

    Tampa Bay Water must find other sources of water in the next year because it faces a cap on the water it can pump from its wellfields, even in drought conditions, Polmann said. The agency wants to build Clearwater's plant in a breakneck, 12-month schedule -- the fastest schedule possible for a plant of its kind -- to help ease the region's water crunch.

    Mayor Brian Aungst supports moving forward. The only thing the commission is agreeing to now, he said, is to spend $270,000 for the plant's design. If future costs are too high, the city still can back out, he said.

    Aungst said the city should be able to secure state funds to help pay for the plant's construction.

    "Ultimately, I think this could help save the citizens some money," Aungst said. "Plus we would be working to help the area pump out more water, and if we can do our part, it will be a win-win for everyone."

    The city's plant, which would be the second of its kind in Pinellas County, would allow Clearwater to produce 2-million more gallons of drinking water daily on top of the 3-million gallons now produced.

    Polmann said the plant, to be on the southwest corner of Sid Lickton Park, would look like a one-story warehouse and produce no smell or noise.

    The plant would push freshwater and brackish water, pumped from nearby city wells, through fine synthetic membranes to remove impurities such as salt and other compounds. Wastewater from the process -- about 10 to 15 percent of the water pumped into the plant -- would piped out to a nearby sewer treatment plant for disposal.

    Commissioner Bob Clark said he wants to know more about the wastewater before he approves the idea. Commissioner Ed Hooper said he's still not certain the city is getting enough out of the deal, noting the city is doing Tampa Bay Water a huge favor by financing construction of the plant.

    Commissioners Johnson and Ed Hart have questions about whether the plant will cause city water rates to increase. To pay for other planned water projects, the city was going to raise water rates by 6.6 percent every year through 2004.

    Hart also is concerned that city staff members told him this spring that building a plant would be too expensive. Now he wants to know what changed.

    The county's other reverse-osmosis plant is in Dunedin, where about 5-million gallons of mostly freshwater, pumped from Dunedin city wells, are filtered daily.

    "We used to get about 200 complaints monthly on our water quality, but now we get very few if any," said Bob Brotherton, Dunedin's director of public works and utilities.

    The Clearwater City Commission also plans to spend another $369,000 -- regardless of what happens with the proposed water-treatment plant -- to design improvements to the city's water-disinfection systems to meet new federal water requirements.

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