Hold that water hose: Reservoir full, but imperfect

TAMPA — Despite cracks and temporary patches, the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir is full.

Thanks to El Niño rains, a sluggish economy and conservation efforts, the region stands ready for the 2011 dry season with several sources of water, including 15.5 billion gallons from the reservoir.

"We're completely opposite from where we were a year ago," said Gerald Seeber, general manager of Tampa Bay Water, the region's utility.

With three sources of water — groundwater, surface water and the utility's desalination plant — the area is in a position not many other places share.

"The water supply system that we set out to build 12 years ago has been completed," he said. "It is providing a variety of water supply sources for the region that puts us in a strong position."

A year ago, brown crunchy lawns were common in most neighborhoods. But as the Tampa Bay area pulls out of a three-year drought, consumers still must follow strict conservation rules. Currently, residents are only allowed to water one day a week.

That rule will remain in effect through June 30, when the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, again takes up the issue. In February, the water-governing board voted to keep the restrictions in place because of what happened after the last major El Niño weather system, said Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix.

"During the last major El Niño in 1997 and 1998, we had a wet winter and rain all the way through March," Felix said. "But as soon as March was over, it stopped raining for about five months."

An arid summer led to wildfires and other problems, she said.

Along with extended restrictions this year, consumers can expect to pay more for water — even though less is being used.

In the last year, usage has dropped by 37 million gallons a day to 206 million. Meanwhile, rates have gone up by 15 cents to $2.40 per 1,000 gallons of water — the quantity the utility uses to sell water to the three counties and cities it serves.

Beginning in October, an average household that uses 8,000 gallons of water could pay another $1.20 a month, according to budget figures released by Tampa Bay Water.

Sustainable drinking water supplies are priceless, said Michelle Biddle Rapp, spokeswoman for Tampa Bay Water. Even with alternative supplies such as the reservoir, drinking water is limited.

And to expand those water sources so the public is not dependent on just one does not come cheap, said Seeber, the utility's general manager. The cost of building alternative water sources — the reservoir, the desalination plant and the like — means the price for producing water remains at a high level despite demand.

It could be a different story when Tampa Bay Water makes a final decision on how and when to fix the reservoir's cracks. For a fix that costs more than $100 million, that could mean at least another 10 cents to the cost of every 1,000 gallons of water sold.

At $140 million, the facility is the largest in the state. When it opened in 2005, water officials claimed it would be the standard bearer for all reservoirs.

A year later, an employee discovered cracks in a layer designed to prevent eroding. Some of the fissures measured 400 feet long and more than a foot deep.

Since then, temporary repairs have been made. That's why the reservoir is full.

But to move ahead with the estimated $125 million in repairs needed to permanently fix the reservoir, workers will have to drain all the water.

Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (813) 661-2454.

Hold that water hose: Reservoir full, but imperfect 04/18/10 [Last modified: Sunday, April 18, 2010 10:12pm]

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