The company that designed Tampa Bay Water's troubled reservoir says it doesn't need a multimillion-dollar repair job that would raise customers' rates, as utility officials contend.
Instead, according to HDR Engineering's senior vice president, Tim Connolly, all the reservoir needs is regular monitoring for any new cracks in the walls, and perhaps the occasional patch job.
The cost: Less than $1 million a year, which would mean no need for a rate increase.
The reason: Although Tampa Bay Water has been drawing water out of the reservoir since fall, no major new cracks have developed. And the cracks that appeared in the past "were in a very small area of the reservoir," so the entire reservoir doesn't require repair, he said.
The claim by a top HDR executive this week comes on the eve of Tampa Bay Water receiving bids on the big fix, which by some early estimates may cost $125 million, nearly as much as the reservoir cost to build.
It's also three months before the lawsuit Tampa Bay Water filed against HDR is scheduled to go to trial.
According to Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber, what HDR says is wrong. He expects to see new cracks when the water gets down lower than it is right now, he said. That means the need for an extensive repair job is as urgent as ever.
"The underlying problem is still there," Seeber said.
Of course, the legal dispute between Tampa Bay Water and HDR is over what constitutes that underlying problem, and who's to blame.
The utility opened the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir in 2005 as a place to store water skimmed from the Alafia River, Hillsborough River and Tampa Bypass Canal. The reservoir, named for the longtime U.S. representative from Pinellas County, is the largest in Florida, covering about 1,100 acres.
Cracks were first discovered in its earthen embankment walls in December 2006. Some cracks were up to 400 feet long and up to 151/2 inches deep. Inspectors said the cracks did not threaten the stability of the embankment, which is as wide as a football field at its base and averages about 50 feet high.
Workers patched the cracks, but the fix didn't last. More cracks appeared. Tampa Bay Water hired HDR to figure out what was wrong with the reservoir the company had designed.
However, utility attorney Richard Harrison recently accused HDR of spending as much time covering its own tracks as it was trying to find the cause of the cracks. Harrison pointed to a March 2008 memo between an HDR executive and one of the company's attorneys as evidence.
In that memo an HDR executive named John Ranon warned that the Nebraska-based company "better be ready to face the music."
One possible solution to the cracking would be installing drains inside the embankment to get rid of water collecting there, Ranon wrote. But if that worked "it could be problematic for HDR because it could be argued" that feature "could have (or should have) been developed eight years ago" — before the reservoir was built.
"HDR is the engineer of record, and we will not be able to escape the slings and arrows that likely will come our way," Ranon wrote. "This may have unfavorable consequences not only from a financial standpoint but also with respect to our standing with this and other clients."
Connolly contended Harrison's release of that memo to reporters was an attempt by Tampa Bay Water to smear his company prior to the July trial.
He contended that the cracks resulted from construction foul-ups by the contractor, Barnard Construction.
When Barnard began building the earthen embankment walls in 2003, the Tampa Bay region was just emerging from a long dry spell, Connolly said. Workers were supposed to compact the dirt so it was packed down tight, but because the soil was so dry they failed to pack it down enough, he said.
They also apparently used too much soil, he said. Despite requirements that the soil layer atop a plastic membrane be no more than 2 feet thick, a photo taken during construction shows earth that's piled up far higher.
"If the soil was placed loose, it would settle on saturation and that settlement could initiate cracking in the soil-cement," an engineering expert from another Tampa Bay Water contractor, Black & Veatch, wrote in a 2008 e-mail.
A year later, when heavy rains from a tropical storm washed away some of the earthworks under construction, the bulldozers simply pushed it back in place instead of rebuilding it properly, Connolly said. Yet nobody caught those errors — including HDR.
"There were lots of people out there, including us, including Tampa Bay Water," he said. "Nobody said back up and redo this — not us, not Tampa Bay Water, not anybody."
Asked what percentage of the blame belongs to HDR, he said that was up to a jury to decide.
Tampa Bay Water filed suit in federal court in December 2008 against HDR; Barnard Construction, the contractor; and CDG, which provided construction management. The board settled with CDG in the fall, and two months ago reached an unusual settlement with Barnard.
That settlement calls for the Montana-based Barnard to pay Tampa Bay Water no less than $750,000 and no more than $5 million in damages, depending on what a jury finds when the case goes to trial July 5. By keeping Barnard as a party in the case, Tampa Bay Water has an ally in accusing HDR of causing the cracks with a bad design.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.