Power outage knocks out Tampa Bay Water's desal plant

A weekend power outage in Apollo Beach shut down Tampa Bay Water's desalination plant. But the problem caused more than a few flickering lights.

The outage created what's called a "water hammer," a surge that sends water through pipes at increased pressure. The surge caused "a few pipe leaks," according to utility spokeswoman Michelle Biddle Rapp.

As of Monday, the plant was still offline. Rapp said restarting the plant takes 13 hours, so it should be back producing water by today.

The surge was so strong because the plant was running at above its 25 million-gallon-a-day capacity when the power outage occurred, Rapp said. The reason dates to the recent spring water shortage, when the utility's reservoir went dry and it violated its groundwater pumping permit with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, better known as Swiftmud.

The utility is under orders from Swiftmud to lower its pumping from the area's well fields to below 90 million gallons a day by Dec. 31, Rapp said. As a result, she said, "we need to maximize other sources and minimize our use of groundwater as much as possible."

Hence the decision to run the desal plant above capacity, even though it is the most expensive source of water.

The $140 million plant, the largest in the United States, opened in 2008, nearly five years late and millions over budget. Getting it built involved dealing with contractor bankruptcies, exotic mussel infestations and filters that fouled too fast.

It failed its first performance test in 2003, requiring $30 million in repairs. The plant passed a second test at the end of 2007. But there remains one final test — a test of the plant's long-term production capability — that could be a challenge given what happened this weekend.

The plant was designed to produce a top capacity of 25 million gallons a day, with the possibility of another 10 million gallons a day through an expansion. Swiftmud pledged $85 million toward the project.

But Tampa Bay Water's computer models suggest the plant should be operated at just 15 million gallons a day, supplemented by other, cheaper water sources. Swiftmud officials complained that that's not what they agreed to pay for. The dispute went to mediation.

Under the agreement that resulted, Swiftmud officials promised to pay Tampa Bay Water the $85 million in three installments, based on the desal plant meeting certain production levels.

The wholesale utility got 25 percent of the $85 million once the plant was officially up and running. It will get 50 percent of the money when the plant operates at an annual average rate of at least 12.5 million gallons a day for 12 consecutive months. And the utility will get 25 percent upon successful operation of the plant at a monthly average rate of 25 million gallons a day for four consecutive months.

So far the desal plant still has not completed that last test — running for four straight months at full capacity — to earn the last 25 percent of the money, which equals $21.2 million, said Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix.

Rapp said the utility has until the end of 2010 to complete that test "and we intend to do so. Power outages should not affect our ability to complete the milestone."

Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or craig@sptimes.com.

Power outage knocks out Tampa Bay Water's desal plant 11/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 12:44pm]

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