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Recalling Pinellas | An occasional column

St. Petersburg's future of plentiful drinking water ran dry

Certitude is always easier to come by than certainty.

When I started covering St. Petersburg City Hall in the mid-1950s, City Manager Ross Windom and Utilities Director George K. Armes assured me many times that the city's abundant potable water supply would be sufficient far into the future.

After all, they reasoned, the city had owned the Cosme-Odessa well field in Hillsborough County since 1930 — 20 wells near Gunn Highway and N Mobley Road that pumped a lot of water from the ground. And, besides that, since 1940 the city had owned Weeki Wachee Spring in Hernando County, which gushed 117 million gallons of clear water per day from an underground natural spring. How could the city run out of drinking water?

Turned out the assurances of the city officials were like the advice my dad gave me when I got out of college. "If you can earn $10,000 a year, you'll be on easy street," he said.

But Windom and Armes weren't just spit-balling. Their opinions on city water were backed up by hydrology studies and outside engineering reports.

Yet the twin forces of population growth and years of drought destroyed those rosy predictions. By the early 1970s people living in rural Hillsborough-Pasco areas began seeing their lake levels drop as wells pumped more and more water from the ground. The dreaded intrusion of saltwater was detected, so the city drilled newer wells farther north. Pumping at Cosme-Odessa was cut in half.

Weeki Wachee, one of about 35 underground springs in Florida, proved to be virtually impossible to tap as a drinking water source. All sorts of ideas were hatched, including City Council member Kathleen Ford's recommendation of bottling the spring water and selling it. All of these proposals came to naught.

One personal memory: In the 1950s, men's wash-and-wear suits came into being. A friend at the St. Petersburg Times was Stuart Stern, a photo editor whose uncle in Baltimore was making these suits. We got the idea of shooting pictures through the windows of the famed underwater theater. Thus we intended to create an advertisement that would show a man swimming underwater in one of these polyester suits at Weeki Wachee, then emerging in a still neatly-pressed suit.

We hired a model, fitted the suit with concealed fishing weights to keep down trapped air, but were dismayed to see the suit blow up like a blimp anyway. We went home with a lot of useless exposed film.

But I digress.

By the early 1970s it was apparent that fast-growing Florida — and the Tampa Bay area in particular — were heading for the kind of water wars that California and western states had been going through for years. So, regional water authorities were created.

First was the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, which saw its flood-control responsibilities expanded to water management in 1972. Two years later came the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, which was replaced by Tampa Bay Water in 1998.

Soon, Swiftmud was outlawing heavy pumping under a state law that required it to maintain levels of lakes and rivers. In 2001, it bought 440 acres around Weeki Wachee from the city of St. Petersburg. And then Tampa Bay Water spent $140 million to build a desalination plant at Apollo Beach and millions more for new pipelines and a giant reservoir. The desal plant opened in 2008, five years late and way over budget.

The desalination plant has been plagued by problems and, despite refittings, it has mostly failed to meet its stated goal of 25 million gallons per day.

In November, the plant was knocked offline temporarily by a power outage — which came as the plant was being operated above capacity because of a water shortage.

The reservoir also needs a costly repair to correct cracks in its soil cement wall. During a water shortage earlier this year, Tampa Bay Water pumped the reservoir dry and then violated its groundwater permit. It's enough to make Job cry for mercy.

I'm sure if Windom and Armes were still here to behold what has happened to those once-bountiful water supplies, their jaws would be scraping their shoe tops.

Jerry Blizin, who lives in Tarpon Springs, was a Times reporter from 1948 to 1965.

St. Petersburg's future of plentiful drinking water ran dry 11/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 7:05pm]
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