Eleven years ago, a fledgling utility named Tampa Bay Water launched a host of new water-supply projects breathtaking in their ambition. Among them: the biggest reservoir Florida has ever seen.
Records show, however, that the reservoir project was approved with no discussion by the utility's board. And the company the board hired to design it — again, with no discussion or debate — had never worked on a project like it.
The job of overseeing the company's work was assigned to a utility employee who wasn't a licensed engineer. Meanwhile, state permitting officials, who had never dealt with a reservoir this big, relied on a consultant who worked for the phosphate industry on far smaller dams.
When it opened in east Hillsborough County in 2005, utility officials boasted that the $140 million C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir would be "the benchmark by which other reservoirs in Florida are measured." A year later, an employee spotted the first cracks.
Now, with Tampa Bay Water officials talking about raising water rates to cover the $100-million-plus cost of repairing the cracks, the utility's critics feel vindicated.
Mark Farrell, for instance. As assistant executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District in the mid-1990s, Farrell helped put together the blueprint for Tampa Bay Water.
Farrell had recommended against state water managers handing the utility millions in tax money to build the reservoir or anything else. Tampa Bay Water's predecessor had never built anything but pipelines, he said, "and they were blowing up all over the place."
He's convinced the utility got in over its head: "When you give a lot of money to somebody, you should be sure they know how to build something."
But the utility's attorney, Richard Harrison, says Tampa Bay Water is not to blame.
"If the design is bad and the construction is bad, I'm not sure how that's our fault," he said.
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Tampa Bay Water's first chairman, then-Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, wanted everyone to appreciate what they were about to witness.
"This is a historic time for the Tampa Bay region," he said. Then the new utility's board voted 8-1 on Nov. 16, 1998, to authorize a slate of six water-supply projects — which included not only the reservoir but the largest desalination plant in North America.
The utility's predecessor, the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, had been mired in lawsuits because it drew too much water from underground, drying up lakes, swamps and private wells. Meanwhile its primary water main ruptured in 1987, 1990, 1997 and 1998, creating supply problems.
The key, Turanchik said recently, was to "reorganize West Coast into an entity that could go around and build things." The result, Tampa Bay Water — run by nine officials from six local governments — replaced West Coast in 1998. Despite Farrell's recommendation, the water management district, or Swiftmud, agreed to hand over $183 million to pay for building alternate water sources.
In preparing for the conversion, officials debated trying desal, skimming local rivers, even using treated wastewater to supplement the drinking supply. Building a reservoir "had been discussed for years," said Jerry Maxwell, Tampa Bay Water's first general manager. But there were no specifics then, not even the size, which Maxwell said was "all over the map."
At last, Tampa Bay Water's board settled on desal, a reservoir and skimming river water, voting on all of them at once. The only "nay" vote came from Hillsborough Commissioner Jim Norman, who said the board seemed to be rushing into decisions.
They were hurrying to meet a deadline Swiftmud had set for curtailing pumping from the underground aquifer. The utility had to find an additional 85-million gallons a day by 2007, or risk losing Swiftmud's millions.
The board discussed some projects before the vote, but not the reservoir. Also not discussed was the fact that, in approving those projects, the board had also approved million-dollar engineering contracts for each.
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Three companies vied for the contract to design the reservoir: HDR Engineering, Black & Veatch and Post, Buckley, Schuh & Jernigan. A panel of employees from Tampa Bay Water and the local governments ranked HDR as the top choice, and the board agreed.
Founded in Omaha in 1917, HDR has more than 160 offices worldwide and employs more than 7,000 engineers, architects and scientists. The panel cited HDR's experience as the main reason for ranking the company at the top.
"We were talking about significant expertise across the board," Maxwell said.
But the documents HDR submitted to Tampa Bay Water to showcase its expertise didn't mention building a reservoir like the Bill Young. The only off-stream reservoir that HDR had worked on before was built for Clinton, Texas — a project the city manager says was "orders of magnitude smaller" than what Tampa Bay Water got.
HDR, which later was hired to oversee construction of its design, is now one of three companies that Tampa Bay Water is suing. HDR spokeswoman Mary Zgoda declined to answer questions except to say it is "fully cooperating with Tampa Bay Water to find a resolution that is agreeable to all parties."
To oversee HDR on the huge project, Maxwell assigned an employee named Amanda Rice, then 29. Rice did not get her engineering license until three years later.
"You don't give a project like that to somebody who's never built anything before," Farrell said. "There was no oversight of any sort."
But Maxwell said Rice's license did not matter: "She was simply the person in charge of keeping it on track and making sure it was on schedule. She wasn't responsible for performing any of the calculations, nor did she sign and seal any of the documents."
For that, the utility trusted HDR, Maxwell said, adding, "Unfortunately there are times when even the best-laid plans don't meet your expectations."
Tampa Bay Water declined to make Rice available for questions.
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By a 2001 public hearing, people were beginning to question the reservoir. Primarily they objected to its location near a neighborhood in eastern Hillsborough, fearing a breach might lead to disaster.
Among the critics was then-state Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon. He said then that when he tried to question the project, Tampa Bay Water responded with "arrogance and elusiveness."
The problem, as before, was Swiftmud's deadline. "I don't think they were in a position to entertain much delay by elected officials or residents," Lee said recently. "The train had left the station, and they didn't have time to respond to questions." Yet because of the sheer complexity of the project, he said "I don't think they really knew what to expect."
Neither did the people who were supposed to be issuing the state permit.
"No design criteria for this facility exist within the rules of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, because this is the first facility of its type in the state," Rice wrote in a 2004 Florida Water Resources Journal article.
So DEP officials hired longtime phosphate industry consultant David Carrier to help them review the plans. Phosphate companies have been building small reservoirs in Florida for 70 years.
"The Bill Young reservoir is the first time I worked on the side of the regulators," Carrier said. "I've worked on the design of dams in other parts of the world."
HDR's design called for building an earthen embankment 65 feet high and 5 miles around. An impermeable membrane buried in the embankment prevents leaks. Because an earthen reservoir faces a high risk of erosion from waves, HDR proposed armoring it with a soil-cement mix.
Late in the design process, Tampa Bay Water officials say, Carrier suggested adding another soil layer to protect the membrane from tearing. Carrier said he does not recall that.
As a result, utility officials say, HDR added a soil wedge between the soil-cement layer and the membrane — but the company did not include a drain. Water became trapped, causing cracks up to 400 feet long and 15½ inches deep in the soil-cement.
According to Carrier, Bill Young's cracks are a unique problem, as is the cause: "A lot of (reservoirs) have been built without drains. They weren't thought to be necessary when they were built."
Tampa Bay Water has since asked to see HDR's computer modeling on the design, the utility's attorney said. HDR said the modeling was on only one engineer's laptop — and it was stolen from his car while he was jogging in downtown Tampa, Harrison said.
The cracks are too shallow to pose any threat to the reservoir's safety, state and utility officials say. But they speculate that the cost to fix the problem could be $125 million — nearly as much as the reservoir cost to build — and they predict a rate increase will be necessary to pay for it.
The bottom line, Lee said, is that the reservoir and desal plant — which opened five years late and $40 million over budget — helped the region cope with a rising demand for water, but at a far steeper cost than anyone expected.
"We could not have continued to grow without them," Lee said. "But once you get past that, from the execution standpoint, it could've been better."
Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report.