CLEARWATER — Tampa Bay Water will raise its rates as it raises the walls of its reservoir, voting Monday for both a 3-cent rate increase and for expanding its reservoir by 3 billion gallons.
The utility's board also voted to hire a Nebraska-based firm, Kiewit Infrastructure Group, to handle the expansion and repairs to the reservoir's walls, which have repeatedly cracked.
"This is a historic moment for Tampa Bay Water and for the region," Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, who chairs the wholesale regional utility, said after the vote to expand the 15.5 billion-gallon C.W. Bill Young Reservoir in rural Hillsborough County.
Water rates throughout Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties would go up by 3 cents 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 not directly tied to the reservoir repair, but is something of a consequence of it.
The increase is necessary, according to finance director Koni Cassini, because during the reservoir repair the reservoir will be emptied, and the utility's Apollo Beach desalination plant will be run more frequently to supply water. The desal plant's water costs more to produce, because it involves the use of chemicals and filters to turn salty Tampa Bay water into something that's drinkable.
The total price of the repair and expansion of the reservoir is now estimated to be more than $162 million, with $120 million to fix the cracks and another $42 million for the expansion of a facility that originally cost $144 million to build. The utility plans to ask the Southwest Florida Water Management District for financial assistance, although that state agency is facing a 36 percent budget cut mandated by the Legislature.
Some Tampa Bay Water board members had initially questioned the need for expanding the reservoir, but they voted unanimously to approve the expansion. The most vocal critic, St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse, said he would vote for it because when completed, the 18.5 billion-gallon reservoir would lead Tampa Bay Water to be far less likely to use its desal plant, which produces the most expensive water in the system.
However, Nurse and other board members strongly opposed the rate increase included in the $164 million budget for next year, especially since demand for water in the Tampa Bay area has fallen because of the economic slump. "My constituents are going to ask, 'How can you justify raising my rates?' " Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman told her fellow utility board members. "We cannot put any more burdens on our ratepayers."
Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda warned that if they did not raise the rates a little right now, the reservoir repair cost might force them to raise the rates a lot later and then "the sticker shock to the ratepayers is really going to be troublesome."
The rate increase, raising rates to $2.55 per 1,000 gallons, passed on a 5-3 vote.
At this point the utility staff members hope they will be able to offset at least some of the cost with money from suing the company that designed the reservoir, HDR Engineering. That case is set for trial next month. But if that does not cover the cost, then rates may have to go up, with the average user seeing a boost of about $1 a month.
The utility's general manager, Gerald Seeber, strongly urged the board to approve doing the expansion of the reservoir now even though water demand has dropped. Seeber contended it's less disruptive to do the expansion work during the repair than to try to do it after it's fixed; and $42 million is less than the estimated $200 million to $300 million to build a second reservoir.
The utility opened the 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 covers about 1,100 acres.
The walls consist of an earthen embankment as wide as a football field at its base, averaging about 50 feet high. An impermeable membrane buried in the embankment prevents leaks.
The embankment's top layer, a mixture of soil and cement to prevent erosion, began cracking in 2006. Some cracks were up to 400 feet long and up to 15 1/2 inches deep. Workers patched the cracks, but the patches didn't last.
An investigation found that water is getting trapped between the soil-cement lining and the membrane. As long as the reservoir is full, the trapped water remains stable. When the utility draws down the reservoir, though, pressure increases on trapped water in some areas, producing cracks and soil erosion.
The cracks have not been deemed a safety hazard, but utility officials say if they don't fix their underlying cause, conditions could get worse.
However, HDR Engineering says the problem could be solved with a simple monitoring and maintenance program that would cost less than $1 million a year — a contention utility officials say is false.
Now that the board has approved hiring Kiewit, the utility's staff will begin negotiating a contract. The goal is to get a contractor hired by Aug. 15 so design and permitting can start by Sept. 1 and construction can start by September 2012. The work is likely to last two years.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.