In 1999, a small army of U.S. Secret Service agents descended on an advanced water complex on County Road 1. Accompanying them: Goh Chok Tong, the prime minister of Singapore (population: 4,600,000). Meeting the group: utilities workers from the city of Dunedin (population: 36,000).
Like delegates and academics in years past, the prime minister had traveled the world to see the city's reverse-osmosis plant, a remarkably modern brackish-to-potable treatment facility and one of the earliest of its kind.
Yet in the decade since his visit, and in the 18 years since first going online, the facility seems to have faded from the high-tech spotlight.
"We used to be cutting edge," said city water division director Paul Stanek. "Now we're the dinosaur."
As cities turn to similar technologies to fend off rising prices from Tampa Bay Water, the regional supplier that sells to the county, officials have looked to Dunedin's water strategy as a possible predictor for the future.
But it hasn't always been pretty. Dunedin's citywide well field, which feeds into the plant, has been blamed for millions of dollars in damage from home-swallowing sinkholes.
No solid connection was ever made between the ground caving and the wells pumping. But residents from across north Pinellas County, now confronted with well expansions into their neighborhoods, see the sinkhole scare as a bad omen.
As opposed to the majority of local cities, which import millions of gallons from Tampa Bay Water's out-of-town wells, Dunedin pumps every drop from within city limits.
In Pinellas County, only Dunedin and Belleair can tout such "water independence." The self-reliance, Stanek said, helps to keep rates steady and utility payments in-house, paying for local maintenance or expansion. Other cities, now building their own reverse-osmosis plants, seem to envy the benefits.
Here's how the city's water cycles. Beginning in 1915, wells scattered across the city delivered fresh water to individual homes and neighborhoods. But as the population grew, those fresh and brackish wells were redirected to the reverse-osmosis plant, brought online in 1992.
Water at the plant is passed through a membrane, separating a stream of salty and undrinkable concentrate from another of treated and potable water.
The drinking water pumps out to more than 11,000 customers citywide, who use it and flush it to the wastewater treatment plant. From there, the water reunites with the concentrate, combining to form reclaimed water that goes back into the ground.
The plant can push out 9.5 million gallons a day, which could nearly sate the population of Clearwater, the city's southern neighbor. But the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which polices well fields for "safe yields," has only permitted an output of 6.6 million.
That's still more than enough, Stanek said. The city in December used only half that.
It's not cheap to run a facility like Dunedin's — electricity costs reach about $500,000 a year, and the membranes serving as filters are typically replaced every five years at a cost of about $1 million. Capital construction, like the installation of a pretreating chlorine-injection system in 2002, tacks on costs.
Luckily, Stanek said, the city doesn't need to fret about keeping up with the neighbors. Because the plant was built to expand, the city may not need a new facility for decades.
Sinkhole task force
The reverse-osmosis plant wasn't born under the best circumstances. In 1992, residents formed a "sinkhole task force" and demanded millions of dollars from the city in repayment.
Dunedin's "urban well field" spanned the city, with 26 straws all tapped underground. But one well on Knollwood Drive, closest to the Patricia Estates subdivision, had caused the ground to collapse and damage about 175 homes, the task force claimed.
Barry Beck, the director of the now-defunct Florida Sinkhole Research Institute, was commissioned by the city to study the subdivision's damage. He estimated more than $5 million of damage had been done due to the shifting soils, but he didn't blame the well.
Many of the Dunedin homes that had been cracked, he said, were "not near any high-yield wells." Four years after the suit began, the city settled for $115,000.
Though still reported off and on, as with the July sinkhole that devastated a home in the Brae Moor neighborhood, few areas have reached that level of widespread damage, said Alan Marshall, a Trinity attorney specializing in sinkhole lawsuits.
Since representing the Dunedin task force, he has continued to receive regular claims of damage blaming wells, though much of it comes from cities like Safety Harbor or Spring Hill. Improvements in construction and repair, like using thicker grout and continued research into hydrogeology, have helped keep homes and their values from plummeting. Still, he said, they haven't completely solved the problem.
"We've got newer and more advanced methods," he said, "but it's still the same old issue. What's really causing it?"
Stanek said city wells are constantly monitored, which keeps the danger of overpumping at bay. The city's declining water consumption has also helped.
Stanek knocked on wood when asked whether he thought that sinkholes could become a problem again.
"We're an old dog," Stanek said, "but we can be taught new tricks."
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.