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More problems for Tampa Bay Water desalination plant

As if the news about the cracked and empty reservoir wasn't discouraging enough, now comes word that Tampa Bay Water's long-troubled desalination plant is having more problems.

The $158 million plant, which opened five years late and cost $40 million more than expected, remains unable to supply the full 25 million gallons a day that was originally promised.

This weekend, a leaking intake pipe required shutting down operations completely for about 24 hours. As of Monday, mechanical problems limited the plant to producing only 14 million gallons a day.

Utility officials say they hope to boost that to at least 16 million, and perhaps as high as 19 million, sometime this week. The plant has seldom been run at full capacity, partly because it is the most expensive source of water.

But in January, the utility promised that by now it would be producing at full capacity, when it is needed most because of a critical drought. Despite that, 19 million is as high as it will go for the next couple of months.

"This operating scenario is expected to continue for the next eight weeks until critical electrical component parts become available from the manufacturer and the maintenance work can be completed," the utility's general manager, Gerald Seeber, wrote in a memo to state officials 10 days ago. "Full capacity of 25 mgd will not be available until May."

The summer rainy season will not begin until late June. In the interim, to cope with the lack of rain, Tampa Bay Water is again asking the Southwest Florida Water Management District to impose the toughest watering restrictions in history.

The state's largest wholesale utility built the biggest desal plant in the nation for times like this, to provide a drought-proof source of water that did not require overpumping the underground aquifer. In the past, overpumping drained lakes and wetlands, and damaged private wells.

The plant, next to Tampa Electric's Big Bend power plant in Apollo Beach, is supposed to take 40 million gallons of seawater from Tampa Bay and force it through membranes to produce 25 million gallons of drinkable freshwater and 15 million gallons of brine.

A transformer that helps power the filtration through the membranes blew out recently "and that's a specialized piece of equipment — you can't just go to Home Depot and pick up a new one," said Chuck Carden, Tampa Bay Water's director of operations and facilities.

That $90,000 part is the "critical electrical component" that's on order now. Meanwhile, maintenance in another part of the filtration system is also limiting the plant's output, Carden said. Although the schedule calls for ramping up to a full 25 million gallons a day by May, he said, "If we can do better, we will."

The desal plant first opened in 2003, then shut down for an expensive series of repairs that took until January 2008 to complete. Several contractors on the project went bankrupt and the utility became embroiled in more than one lawsuit.

Until now, the desal plant's woes did not create a problem for Tampa Bay Water's supply because it had built a 15-billion-gallon reservoir for storing water from the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers and the Tampa Bypass Canal. But then cracks in the reservoir wall appeared.

Although the cracks did not threaten the reservoir's stability, utility officials drained millions of gallons of water to investigate the cause. So when the ongoing drought required Tampa Bay Water to begin tapping the reservoir last September, it was only half full.

Now the rivers are too low to supply any more water. Last week the utility took its final drops of water out of the reservoir, then shut down its $144 million surface water treatment plant, probably until the rainy season begins.

The lack of rainfall has spurred the utility's 2 million water users to water their lawns more. As a result, the utility expects to pump more than 100 million gallons a day from the aquifer in March, more than 140 million in April and to peak at more than 160 million gallons a day in May. That's far above the 90-million-gallon limit set by the Southwest Florida Water Management District to avoid environmental damage.

More problems for Tampa Bay Water desalination plant 03/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 16, 2009 11:31pm]

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