After years of malfunctions, delays and repairs, Tampa Bay Water's desalination plant is consistently producing the freshwater it was designed to deliver, officials said Monday.
The plant, built next to Tampa Electric's Big Bend power plant in Apollo Beach, was once notoriously bedeviled by problems: spotty performance, cost overruns, contractor bankruptcies and litigation galore.
Now it has hit two key milestones: It has pumped out an average of 20 million gallons of freshwater a day for 12 consecutive months. And it has averaged more than 25 million gallons of water a day for four consecutive months.
"It's given us every indication that it works well," Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber said. "It is a reliable facility."
Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, who sits on the agency's board, said she's "optimistic, not cautiously optimistic, but optimistic" that the worst of Tampa Bay Water's experiences with the plant are in the past.
"It's refreshing to see something that has such a sordid history doing the job it was intended to do," she said.
At a minimum, achieving those final two performance benchmarks will help pay for the plant and keep water rates lower than they would be otherwise, officials said.
That's because Tampa Bay Water stands to receive a total of $31.25 million from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud.
Swiftmud pledged $85 million plus interest to help build the plant but held back the money until the facility hit four key performance benchmarks.
The plant originally opened in 2003 as the nation's largest desal facility. It cost $158 million, $48 million more than originally expected.
It was designed to produce 25 million gallons of drinking water a day by filtering seawater through membranes.
Soon, however, it had to be shut down for a costly series of repairs. Along the way, several contractors on the project went bankrupt, and the problems led to more than one lawsuit.
The plant reopened in January 2008 and soon hit a 12-month average of producing 12.5 million gallons of water a day. That satisfied the first two Swiftmud milestones, and officials released $63.75 million to Tampa Bay Water.
Reaching the last two milestones will enable Tampa Bay Water to request the remaining $21.25 million, plus more than $10 million in interest.
Because agency administrators factored the $10 million in interest into this year's budget, their water rates are lower than they would be otherwise.
The agency charges its member governments about $2.40 per thousand gallons of water. Without the interest income, the rate would be about $2.55 per thousand gallons.
Since opening, the seawater desal plant has produced more than 18 billion gallons of freshwater.
That, plus the 15-billion-gallon C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir, has taken some of the pressure off well fields in northern Hillsborough, northern Pinellas and Pasco counties. The reservoir is the largest in Florida, covering about 1,100 acres in east Hillsborough County.
It is full for now, but another major repair job is looming. Tampa Bay Water officials and their consultants are making plans to fix cracks in its topmost layer of soil and cement.
Officials anticipate the project will entail draining the reservoir and spending $125 million. Repairs could take from summer 2012 to summer 2014.
Tampa city officials worry that draining the reservoir will stress the Hillsborough River. On Monday, Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda, who sits on the agency's board, asked that the impact of draining the reservoir be studied before the job begins.
"All the city of Tampa is looking for is to have some type of assurances that the withdrawal will not interfere with the only water source the city has, which is the river," he said.