CLEARWATER — The board of Tampa Bay Water on Monday approved a plan to fix its cracking reservoir that could cost up to $125 million.
That's nearly what it cost to build the $145 million reservoir, intended to supply nearly half of the region's drinkable water during dry times.
Officials at the utility say the problem lies in a design flaw that allows water to build up in a layer of soil between an impermeable membrane in the reservoir's embankment and a layer of cement that lines its basin.
"I'm trying to understand how a project of this size that cost the public so much money, how there was such a flaw in engineering," said board member and New Port Richey Mayor Scott McPherson. "This board has to rely on the engineering of our projects. It's just a very big concern."
The board plans to seek guidance from the nonprofit National Research Council in setting up a panel of experts from around the country to review proposals for repairing the reservoir.
McPherson asked if it might be wise to have a similar peer review for all of Tampa Bay Water's projects.
That would be appropriate if the utility launches a particularly unique project, said John Kennedy, director of the utility's engineering division.
The troubled above-ground reservoir — which is supposed to hold 15 billion gallons — is the first of its kind in the state.
Tampa Bay Water hopes to recover most of the cost of repairs via lawsuits filed against HDR Engineering, which designed the reservoir; Barnard Construction Co., which built it; and Construction Dynamics Group, which oversaw construction.
But the repairs also could mean an increase in water rates that would cost average users about $1 a month. That rate increase wouldn't go into effect until after construction starts in late 2011.
"We can't undo what's been done. But we've got to get it right," said board chairman Mark Sharpe, a Hillsborough County commissioner. "We have a responsibility to get this thing right and make sure people can water their yards and wash their cars and have enough water for a bath or a drink. I'm very disappointed in how we have performed in the past despite our best efforts."
The reservoir was completed in 2005. Less than two years later, cracks appeared in the soil cement lining of the structure.
Tampa Bay Water spent $2 million to determine the cause of the cracks and temporarily fix them. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection on Friday gave the utility permission to fill the repaired reservoir, which now holds only about 2 billion gallons of water.
"We need rains to come back in," Kennedy said. "We haven't had much rain in the last week and a half."
The reservoir will store the water until it's needed, and once it's drawn down, the cracks are expected to reappear and need to be fixed again. Tampa Bay Water put $350,000 in next year's budget for crack repair.
Once cracks develop, the water level can't go above them. That could lead to leaks and flooding.
"Eventually it would undermine the water stop," Kennedy said. "We're not allowed to operate it in an unsafe condition."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.