CLEARWATER — By fall, 13 new wells should help the city supply more than half of its own water. And within four years, city leaders will begin even more drilling.
Their goal? Self-reliance. Doubling the number of city wells and drawing more from underground will be cheaper, they predict, than continuing to buy most of the city's supply from elsewhere. They predict prices from Tampa Bay Water, the regional supplier, will double over the next decade.
Homeowners' water bills will increase no matter what, but the city hopes its pumping plan will slow the rate of that increase. Residents, the city predicts, will save about $1 per 1,000 gallons, or about $6 per home per month. And compared to Tampa Bay Water's predicted prices, the city's yearly water bill will come in about $900,000 cheaper.
Some residents aren't sold on the idea. Since before the expansion's approval last year, they have said Clearwater is gambling with the ground under its feet for what they see as a droplet of savings.
"Is a dollar a month in our water bill worth risking literally millions and millions of dollars in taxpayer money and sinkholes?" said Northwood homeowner Harold Becker. "That's where we draw the line. We don't think the risk is worth taking. And yet the city of Clearwater thinks it is."
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In 2004, when the city brought its reverse-osmosis plant online, officials set a 10-year goal: 70 percent of its water supply would be pumped from beneath the city. The rest would be bought from the county, which has a deal with Tampa Bay Water.
By 2008, the city wasn't close to the finish line, pumping only 30 percent of residents' daily 12.3 million gallon demand. At Clearwater's disposal were 16 freshwater wells across the city. Three others needed repair, and 60 more were abandoned over saltwater intrusion concerns.
Utilities engineering manager Robert Fahey said the current expansion of 13 new wells into the Floridan Aquifer and the rehabilitation of the three offline wells, at a cost of $3.5 million, will push the city to about 55 percent self-reliance and allow the pumps to spread out the withdrawal.
Starting with the southernmost pumps near Crest Lake Park, the wells should begin pumping an average of 200 gallons a minute by September. The wells, which cut across the city to the northernmost tap near Westchester Lake, contain 8- to 12-inch pipes drilled about 200 feet deep.
That much groundwater production — about 6.25 million gallons a day in total — fulfills the city's permit with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud.
But it won't be enough to reach the 70 percent goal. Fahey said the city will need another nine wells, to be installed at sites not yet decided, and a second reverse-osmosis plant, to be built at a treatment plant near U.S. 19 and Drew Street. Public utilities director Tracy Mercer said the city will likely request a permit increase from Swiftmud before that construction. Within four years, engineers hope the network of wells and water mains will meet the 70 percent goal and sate most of the city's needs.
But how much pumping, residents wonder, is too much?
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Like many other homeowners in Countryside, the north Clearwater neighborhood where six of the new wells will be clustered, Sandy Nettles taps into the Floridan for his home's irrigation.
He knows wells, he said. The president of a Tampa hydrogeology firm, he worked 15 years with Pinellas County as a well field consultant.
He also knows their dangers: overpumping, supply-spoiling saltwater intrusion and "cover-collapse sinkholes," where top layers of clay spill into limestone gaps. The city, he said, could see all of them. Considering the city's agreement with Tampa Bay Water, "it just doesn't add up."
Though Clearwater has seen hundreds of sinkholes since pumping began in the 1920s, Fahey said inspections have never found city wells at fault. That's because the damage is done over time, Nettles said, as the wells increase underground water flow, disturb sediment and create shockwaves with every change in pumping.
Recent cases of sudden sinkholes haven't alleviated residents' fears. Excess pumping during last month's freeze in Hillsborough and Polk counties caused 85 sinkholes, damaging buildings and roadways, Swiftmud reported.
Engineers and city consultants have said close monitoring and well rotation will keep grounds from giving way. And though Clearwater has never found a connection between its wells and a sinkhole, state and city policies allow for repayment if city pumping damages property.
Residents say that's not enough. They want a promise that sinkholes won't appear, something they say city officials won't give.
"They won't ensure us," Becker said. "They won't guarantee it's not going to happen."
Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.
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