TARPON SPRINGS — The city's dreams of creating an alternative water supply are inching closer to reality.
The land for a new treatment plant that will provide potable water for city residents has been bought and test wells have been analyzed. City officials say they will begin the process of selecting a designer and builder within the coming months.
And the recent acquisition of a $20.1-million grant has substantially lessened the burden on residents to fund the facility, which is estimated to cost $45-million.
Construction on a reverse-osmosis (RO) water treatment plant could start by the end of the year, said assistant public services director Paul Smith. The plant could be up and running by early 2010.
One benefit to residents? Better water quality.
"It really will be even a higher quality water than what we're getting now, because the water from the RO plant is membrane-treated water, which is the same thing most bottled waters are treated from," Smith said.
The plant would convert brackish groundwater into 5-million gallons of drinking water a day.
Brackish water is a mixture of fresh water and salt water. Reverse osmosis is a separation process that feeds raw water through membranes to filter impurities.
Three-quarters of what remains after the process is completed is potable. The remaining concentrate, or brine, would be diluted as it enters a cooling canal of the Progress Energy power plant near the Pinellas-Pasco border. The canal ultimately discharges into the Gulf of Mexico.
"It's not hazardous chemicals," Smith said. "It's primarily things that are already in the aquifer and are separated out by the RO process."
The project has other benefits, Smith said.
"If we have our own water system, every bit of our rate revenue will be going directly back into our utility system and we will have more direct control of the types of improvement projects for our water system," he said.
Currently, the city gets its water from Pinellas County Utilities, which buys it from Tampa Bay Water. On average, the city uses 3.5-million gallons of water a day. The plant will be capable of producing an average of 5-million gallons a day, and up to 6.4-million gallons in a single day, Smith said.
While the new facility is expensive, Smith said it will eventually be more cost-effective than continuing to buy water.
Revenue generated from water bill payments will pay off a bond to fund the remaining balance of the project and will help pay for plant maintenance.
City officials have been working on the project since August 2002, when former City Manager Ellen Posivach assembled a team of city staffers to study the feasibility of the project. Doing the work in-house saved the city about $100,000, Posivach and Smith said.
In March 2006, 72 percent of city residents voted to pursue the project. Fifteen months later, the city secured a site for the plant with the purchase of 10 acres of vacant land north of the Anclote River for $2.225-million.
In February, the Southwest Water Management District pledged $20.1-million toward the facility's design and construction.
There are at least a dozen plants that use an RO filtration system in the 16-county Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, said Mark Barcelo, hydrologic evaluation program director at Swiftmud.
In 1992, Dunedin opened one of the nation's earliest RO plants, which has been widely regarded a success. Clearwater's treatment plant came online in 2003 and Oldsmar is moving ahead with plans for an RO plant that could produce about 2-million gallons of water a day.
Projections by Tampa Bay Water, the regional water supplier, show that an additional 12-million gallons of new drinking water will be needed by 2012 to meet growing demand in the Tampa Bay area. By 2025, that number jumps to an extra 45 million gallons a day.
Which is why alternative water sources are so important, Barcelo said.
"It's important to have a diverse water supply system, so you have better reliability in terms of trying to meet your demand and minimize the environmental impacts you have."
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4162.