TARPON SPRINGS — Wearing hard hats, Tarpon Springs officials plunged gold-painted shovels into the ground Tuesday in the symbolic groundbreaking ceremony for a $35 million project that will enable the city to generate its own drinking water.
It was a day of celebration for commissioners and other city officials, who hatched the plan for the reverse osmosis water plant three mayors ago and saw lawsuits and other issues delay the project for a decade.
The project is partially financed with a $20.1 million grant from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
"This is a significant milestone for the city," said Public Services director Paul Smith, adding that the project helps diversify the water supply in a region that's sensitive to droughts. "I think that's especially important now that the economy is rebounding, more people are coming to Florida and there will be a need for more water."
Now, Tarpon Springs buys its water from Pinellas County, but that won't be the case after early 2015. The plant will allow Tarpon Springs to pump and filter its own water, following in the footsteps of cities like Clearwater, Oldsmar and Dunedin.
The move requires a big upfront investment and no guaranteed savings.
But it allows cities to make their own decisions about fluoride, minerals and how much to charge residents, Smith said. It also will allow the city to offer softer water, with fewer minerals, and ensure the water quality is consistent, he said.
Clyde Burgess, project director with Wharton-Smith Inc., the company building the plant, told the 30 or so people at the ceremony they had waited long enough for the project and his team would work to finish the project on schedule.
The plant, planned on a big grassy field at 1624 Industrial Blvd., will treat the water through a process known as reverse osmosis.
In short, the plant will filter groundwater pumped from wells, pushing the brackish, salty water through membranes to remove impurities. The process is expected to produce 5 million gallons of drinking water per day, flushing a leftover salty brine into the Gulf of Mexico.
That discharge is the reason resident Henry Ross sued the city over concerns about potential harm to sea life, delaying the project for years and costing the city more than $110,000 in lawyer fees.
Lawsuits were eventually resolved in favor of the city, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued permits.
Those years of headache seemed even more of a reason to celebrate Tuesday, with Mayor David Archie and others cracking jokes about the delays.
"I'm looking forward to this thing being built," said Archie, drawing laughter over the field's cold wind. "I never thought I'd be in office when this happened."
Project manager Bob Robertson, who orchestrated Tuesday's ceremony, said the day turns a page for him.
He'll now be charged with keeping tabs on the project as it's built.
"My job is to make sure the city is getting its money's worth," he said. "I'll be the one to make sure we get the quality of project we're expecting."
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