Tampa Bay Water hasn't run its expensive desalination plant since April, figuring that not doing so would save its customers money. After all, with so much rain falling, there's been no need for it.
But now the regional utility may be facing a penalty from a state agency for failing to run the desal plant enough.
"It's something we'll have to look at," Michael Molligan, a spokesman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, said Tuesday after a discussion of the desal plant's status at the Swiftmud board meeting.
Swiftmud contributed $85 million toward the plant's $158 million price tag when it was built. However, Swiftmud didn't hand over all the money at once. Instead, it insisted the plant — the largest in North America — meet certain milestones to prove it would work.
The plant in Apollo Beach was supposed to open in 2003, but ran into repeated problems and finally cranked up years late and $40 million over budget.
In February, the plant produced enough water to meet the requirements to get the last of the money. According to Molligan, the final requirements of the agreement Tampa Bay Water signed with Swiftmud requires the plant to produce an average of 15 million gallons of water a day (15 mgd) during a time period that stretches from September 2009 to September 2010.
But right now the plant's average is 12.46 mgd, far below mark Swiftmud contends is required.
"There's some question about whether they have the ability to do 15 (mgd) by September," Molligan said.
However, Tampa Bay Water officials contend they don't have to comply with that requirement because they amended their agreement with the state agency — whether the agency itself realizes it or not.
"Tampa Bay Water is under no obligation to the district to operate the desalination plant at 15 mgd," spokeswoman Michelle Biddle Rapp said. "Tampa Bay Water's board policy is to operate the best mix of supply based on the environment, system reliability and cost. It's raining, surface water is available, groundwater pumping is well below the permitted limits, and the reservoir is full. It only makes sense to turn down our most expensive supply."
Florida's mortgage meltdown plays a role too, Rapp pointed out.
"Tampa Bay Water's demands have declined 18.4 percent since 2007 due to economic conditions across the region," she said.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.