CLEARWATER — Despite their misgivings about the impact on rates, Tampa Bay Water's board voted unanimously Monday to sign a $156 million contract to fix its cracked reservoir and expand it from 15.5 billion gallons to 18.5 billion gallons.
The construction work by a Nebraska-based firm, Kiewit Infrastructure Group, is now scheduled to begin late next summer, with completion in 2014.
The work will require draining the reservoir and instead relying on the utility's other water sources, such as the frequently troubled desalination plant, which produces the most expensive water in the regional system.
One board member, Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, said she supported fixing the reservoir but worried they might be rushing through something that could hurt their rates. Tampa Bay Water provides wholesale water to utilities in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, which pass along any rate increase to their customers.
"We've had a series of bad results from big projects," Murman said. "I want to cross all the T's and dot all the I's so we have a smooth landing on this. But I think we're taking the cart before the horse."
Murman said she worried about proceeding with the repairs of the reservoir before a trial next month of the utility's lawsuit against HDR Engineering over the cause of the cracks. Tampa Bay Water contends that HDR's design of the reservoir was flawed, while HDR points the finger at the company that handled construction. The utility's board hopes HDR will lose and have to pay some or all of the repair cost.
The utility's finance director, Koni Cassini, told Murman that the worst-case scenario would require a rate hike of 10 to 15 cents per 1,000 gallons — but if that happened, she said, she would spread the increase over several years to lessen the sting.
The board voted in June to raise its rates 3 cents a month per 1,000 gallons of water used, or just under a quarter for the typical user of 8,000 gallons a month. The increase is to cover the cost of running the desalination plant harder than usual during the two years when the reservoir is being repaired. That will require spending more on power and chemicals for the desal plant.
In addition to the $156 million for the repair and expansion, Tampa Bay Water is putting aside about $6 million to cover any unforeseen expenses during work. Tampa Bay Water's board is asking the Southwest Florida Water Management District to cover half the cost. But that state agency is facing a 36 percent budget cut mandated by Gov. Rick Scott and the state Legislature.
The utility opened the $144 million C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir in June 2005 to store water skimmed from the Alafia River, Hillsborough River and Tampa Bypass Canal. The reservoir, named for the longtime congressman, covers about 1,100 acres in Hillsborough County.
Workers began finding cracks in December 2006, some up to 400 feet long and 15 ½ inches deep. The cracks have not been deemed a safety hazard, but utility officials say that if they don't fix their underlying cause, then conditions could get worse.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.