BELLEAIR — A rise in utility rates could be on tap for residents if town leaders can't figure out a safe, affordable way to keep drinking water clean.
Within five to 10 years, officials say, they expect desalinating water with the town's decades-old filtration system to become impossible.
Converting the water plant to a reverse-osmosis system could cost anywhere from $1.5 million to $11 million, an initial study showed. So, at the direction of the finance board and Town Commission, the staff is researching options. They include:
• Buy water wholesale from Pinellas County, Tampa Bay Water or Clearwater.
• Sell all or part of the water system to another municipality, meaning a possible departure from the water production business altogether.
• Implement one of three smaller-scale reverse-osmosis methods, which treat a portion of the brackish water and blend it with well water treated under the current system.
"We know our current treatment methodology won't take us into the future," said Assistant Town Manager J.P. Murphy. "In looking at the cost of all these options, we're sensitive to making sure we keep the water rates reasonable and affordable for our citizens."
The water filtration question that Belleair and its roughly 1,600 water customers face is one that has plagued other North Pinellas cities.
Murphy said Belleair has been pumping its own water from the ground and then treating it with chloramine, fluoride and other chemicals to make it safe for drinking since at least the late 1960s.
The town operates about 10 wells, but it has had to shut down and move several east over the years as officials combat increasing saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico and local aquifers.
Then there's Dunedin. Heightened salinity levels, along with high iron that turned tapwater as brown as iced tea and gases that smelled like rotten eggs, prompted the city in 1992 to consolidate neighborhood wells and open one of the bay area's first reverse-osmosis plants, said assistant public works and utilities director Paul Stanek.
Clearwater, Oldsmar and Tarpon Springs have turned to reverse-osmosis plants to ward off the rising cost of buying water from the county. The Oldsmar plant, which opened in 2012, cost $18.7 million. The Tarpon facility, slated to open in 2015, cost $43 million.
Belleair property owners pay a base rate of $12.37 a month, plus other costs based on volume. The average monthly bill for a homeowner using 4,000 gallons and no irrigation would be $20, Murphy said.
He said proposed plans for a 33-room boutique hotel plus 132 condos and townhomes on the Belleview Biltmore property wouldn't exorbitantly stress the existing water treatment system.
Officials estimate that the residential units would use nearly 1.6 million gallons a year.
Belleair's plant is currently permitted to produce 1.5 million gallons of water per day — or 528 million annually — yet puts out only about 800,000 to 900,000 gallons daily.
"It will put pressure on," Murphy said, "but it's not so much exponentially larger that the town couldn't handle it."
Officials expect to receive preliminary reverse-osmosis and wholesale estimates by the end of the month.
Research of the sale of the system will take longer.
Town commissioners could publicly discuss the issue as early as this fall.
Contact Keyonna Summers at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. Follow @KeyonnaSummers.