CLEARWATER — Tampa Bay Water was created to provide water to Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. Now state officials are pressuring the utility to sell its product to a thirsty new customer: Polk County.
After all, members of the Southwest Florida Water Management District pointed out during a recent meeting, the utility's expensive desalination plant — which taxpayers helped finance — has been sitting idle for months.
"I do want to see genuine cooperation between Tampa Bay Water and Polk County," Swiftmud member Neil Combee, a former Polk County commissioner, warned Tampa Bay Water officials. "We have a significant investment in alternative water supply for the Tampa Bay area, and we expect to be treated fairly."
Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber was quick to reassure Swiftmud the agency has already begun negotiating with Polk officials about selling them water. However, he said, they face a huge obstacle in piping their product to the inland county.
"The biggest issues are the connection points and the cost to make those right now would be pretty tremendous," Seeber told the Swiftmud board at its Sept. 28 meeting.
But Tampa Bay Water board member Charlie Miranda sees an even greater reason for caution: politics. Miranda, a Tampa City Council member, said the only reason he could see for Tampa Bay Water to agree to such a deal is because Polk County officials are tight with powerful state lawmakers.
"This is politics and I want no part of politics," he warned his fellow utility board members at an Oct. 18 meeting. "Somewhere along the line it becomes a political struggle over power. … They want us to run an expensive plant when we don't need to."
Miranda didn't mention any names, but state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, a citrus grower and rancher, chairs the upper chamber's powerful Policy and Steering Committee on Ways and Means. Alexander has taken an active interest in water issues.
This all began as an ongoing dispute between Swiftmud and Tampa Bay Water over the perpetually troubled desal plant.
Swiftmud contributed $85 million toward the plant's $158 million price tag when it was built. The state agency helped Tampa Bay Water build North America's largest desal plant so the region would stop relying so heavily on water pumped out of the ground. Overpumping was causing lakes and wetlands to dry up.
Swiftmud's board members thought they had an ironclad agreement with Tampa Bay Water to run the desal plant all the time, producing nearly 25 million gallons of water a day. Board members were miffed to learn that Tampa Bay Water had idled the plant in recent months.
Utility officials said they didn't need the desal water because the region enjoyed abundant rainfall, a full reservoir and a sharp drop in demand.
"They were disappointed we didn't tell them about it before we did it," Seeber told his board.
Seeber and Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who chairs the utility's board, showed up at the Swiftmud board meeting to explain that they had put the desal plant on idle to save money. Because of its power demands and chemical usage, the desal plant's water is more expensive than water taken from area rivers or pumped from the ground.
Swiftmud board members said they could understand the desire to be frugal. But then board members from Polk County began prodding Seeber and Sharpe to cut a deal to sell water to Polk as a way to make sure the plant never sits idle again.
One suggested that Swiftmud might help foot the bill for new pipes, too.
"On a short-term basis, if it could be made available, then the only thing we're missing is some way to move it around this region," said Swiftmud board member Paul Senft Jr., like Combee a former Polk County commissioner. "And that might be something we might prioritize in the future."
Polk currently pumps 22 million gallons of water a day out of the ground, and has a Swiftmud permit that allows it to pump up to 33 million gallons, said Polk County Commission Chairman Bob English. But as of 2013, Polk cannot pump any more than that out of the aquifer, he said, even though population projections say the inland county could have 40,000 new residents by 2015, he said.
That's why Polk's eyes have turned to the desal plant, English said, explaining, "We're just preparing for the future."
But so is Tampa Bay Water. In two years, the utility expects to drain its 15 billion gallon reservoir so that its persistent cracking problem can be repaired. The desal plant will probably be needed more than ever during that time, Seeber said.
That's what has Miranda worried — the possibility that the desal plant and its water could become a political football, with Tampa Bay's needs potentially losing out to Polk's superior political clout.
Up until now, Miranda said, Tampa Bay Water has had a mostly harmonious relationship with Swiftmud, so he's wary of giving in to what he regarded as "strong-arming" by the Polk group.
"This is how things start," he said. "This is how marriages fall apart."
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.