Is Tampa Bay Water set up to fail?

Four years ago, when Tampa Bay Water's 15 billion-gallon reservoir opened, U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young cut the ribbon. Young had funneled $89 million in federal funds into the $146 million project. As a result, the utility had named it after the longtime congressman.

Now that the reservoir that bears his name is beset with expensive cracking problems, though, Young disavows any responsibility for what went wrong. He didn't design it or build it, he points out.

"All I did was appropriate your money to build the reservoir," Young said.

Over the past decade, Tampa Bay Water has built three big, expensive facilities to slake the thirst of a growing region — only to see all three run into problems:

• Its desalination plant was years late and millions over budget. Even now, the plant has trouble running at full capacity.

• Its surface-water treatment plant also failed to open on time, then had trouble with its filters. It was recently shut down when river levels fell too low to skim any more water from them.

• Then there's the reservoir. The cracks aren't deep enough to breach the walls and let all the water out. But fixing them is likely to cost about as much as building it in the first place.

And unless Tampa Bay Water can collect that money through suing the companies that designed and built it, water customers in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties will see their rates go up to cover the repair.

Longtime critics of Tampa Bay Water such as state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, feel vindicated but not happy.

"I don't take any pleasure in saying, 'I told you so,' " said Storms, herself a former Tampa Bay Water board member. "It has been enormously frustrating to me to be the watchman on the wall and say there are problems here and they're systemic and pervasive."

The way the board is set up, though, finding someone to hold accountable can be tricky.

Tampa Bay Water is a wholesale utility that earns its revenue selling water to municipal utilities throughout the region, not from taxes. It's run by a board of elected officials, but none of them are directly elected to the utility board.

Instead, the nine-member board — which meets Monday to talk about the reservoir problem — is made up of two representatives each from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, and one city official each from St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey.

Most of the board members who voted on building the reservoir and the desalination plant aren't on the board anymore. The ones who are, such as Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, say the same thing as Rep. Young: Don't blame me.

"We are not engineers," said Hildebrand. "We have to rely on them."

Storms suggested it might be smart for the Legislature to change Tampa Bay Water's setup so that instead of being run by politicians, the utility board is made up of appointed experts. People knowledgeable about water-supply and engineering might ask tough questions rather than defer to a consultant's advice.

"It's the right structure," insisted Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner who, as Tampa Bay Water's first chairman, signed the original 1998 contract with HDR Engineering in 1998 to design the reservoir.

Turanchik also was the last chairman of Tampa Bay Water's predecessor, the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority. That board lacked representatives from the areas where much of the region's groundwater came from, areas that suffered environmental damage because of overpumping, Turanchik said. West Coast became so tied up with lawsuits that it was unable for years to launch any new water supply projects.

"Whatever ails Tampa Bay Water is nothing compared to the byzantine quagmire that was West Coast," Turanchik said.

When it started, Tampa Bay Water's mandate called for finding alternative water sources. The goal: Instead of pumping 151 million gallons a day from its well fields, the utility would cut back to 90 million a day by the end of 2008. The obvious alternatives were building a desal plant and a reservoir, said former St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer, who chaired Tampa Bay Water in 2000 when it approved the reservoir's construction.

"It sounded simple," he said. "Reservoirs are not new. Desal is not new. It was just a matter of bringing in the best consultants and the best engineers. But for whatever reason, the engineering was not up to what was required. It's really a shame."

Fischer noted that the utility made all its decisions in public meetings, and it did achieve its goal of cutting back pumping to 90 million gallons in December. However, it has since had to increase its groundwater pumping because of the drought and the problems with the reservoir.

Still, Fischer said, "if I was there today, I'd vote for it again."

Hildebrand pointed out that when the reservoir opened "it was wildly acclaimed as being better than sliced bread. … Then you get into the whoops factor."

No matter what happens, she said, the board must figure out a better way to do its job, "because some future board in 15 years or so is going to be dealing with building another reservoir and expanding the desal plant, because you know the demand is going to increase."

Is Tampa Bay Water set up to fail? 06/13/09 [Last modified: Sunday, June 14, 2009 7:07am]

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