TARPON SPRINGS — Environmental concerns have slowed the city's effort to become water independent.
A $45 million water project was due to be completed last December, but remains deep in the permitting process.
Complicating matters: a vote by Pinellas County commissioners last month that said the city could not put wells in unincorporated residential areas outside the city limits. The city hoped those wells would spread out the impact of the pumping.
The city faces two environmental concerns: Sinkholes and what to do with the salty brine produced by the water treatment process.
Tarpon officials call the delays normal and are confident that they are moving in the right direction in an effort to bring residents water at a rate that the city can control.
"A brackish groundwater resource is a responsible water resource," said Bob Robertson, Tarpon's public services program manager. "We are not taking fresh groundwater. This project gives the city control over supply, quality and rates."
Robertson said water drawdown from the wells will be 2 to 3 feet across the system and testing has shown that there is little chance for sinkholes. He said the city can safely remove 4.5 million gallons of water a day with 15 wells and the county's decision will have no effect on the project.
"I fall back on the ground water hydrogeological experts who tell us that based on their testing, they have reasonable assurance that there will not be sinkholes," Robertson said.
The project calls for a reverse-osmosis treatment facility that treats brackish, or salty, water pulled from 17 wells drilled 100 to 150 feet deep north of the Anclote River. The resulting salt concentrate, or brine, will be flushed into a industrial canal that empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
Tarpon has been trying to satisfy the Southwest Florida Water Management District's concerns for 14 months.
"Water withdrawals can lower the water table and dry out wetlands," said Robyn Felix, spokeswoman for the agency, known as Swiftmud. "And there are some potential saltwater intrusions and potential impact to the Anclote River. We are working back and forth with them for them to resolve those issues.''
Felix said Tarpon has agreed to reduce the amount of water it withdraws and add more environmental monitoring, but nothing has been put in writing. Tarpon Springs has an April 19 deadline to address the concerns.
Robertson said because of lower city growth projections, Tarpon will now draw 4.2 million gallons a day from the ground instead of the initial 4.5 million that was requested.
"That could help remedy the situation," Felix said.
All tests have shown that the brine concentrate expelled back into the gulf will have no negative impact on sea life, Robertson said. But to bolster its environmental efforts, the city will add dissolved oxygen to the brine before it goes out to the gulf.
Robertson said "the dissolved oxygen will increase the oxygen level in the water, which allows the fish to breathe. There is already plenty of oxygen in it, but this is just a safety precaution."
The two other major permits, one to build the plant and the other to discharge the brine into the gulf are nearly completed, Robertson said.
Tarpon hopes to begin construction this summer, with completion expected by the end of 2011.