CLEARWATER — Thirsty for a cheaper source of drinking water, Clearwater plans to drill 13 wells in various parks around the city to pump more water from deep underground.
Some residents are in an uproar, fearful that more pumping will lead to sinkholes as well as saltwater intrusion into the aquifer. They worry that their residential wells will go dry or become brackish.
The city is trying to reassure the public that the wells won't cause any problems. But the doubters say there are too many unanswered questions.
"This could be a disaster. It is pure, unadulterated folly," said Dr. Louis Alan Zagar, one of several concerned neighbors in east Clearwater's Northwood area, which is ringed by proposed well sites. "There will be a whole bunch of straws sucking out the water directly from under our homes."
City engineers say scientific research backs them up, and the new wells will be closely monitored to make sure there are no side effects.
"I can understand people having some doubts, but we have been doing this for a long time," said Robert Fahey, Clearwater's utilities engineering manager. He insists that officials are being environmentally responsible: "We live here, too."
This comes as nearby cities are seeking to tap new sources of potable water. Dunedin is negotiating a deal to drill two wells on local land owned by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. And Tarpon Springs plans to start treating brackish groundwater.
Millions of gallons
Clearwater already has 19 deep water wells and pumps nearly 4 million gallons a day, or MGD, from the ground. It buys the rest of its drinking water from Pinellas County, which buys it from Tampa Bay Water, the region's wholesale water utility.
But it costs about $1,000 more per MGD to buy it, compared with the cheaper water that Clearwater produces for itself. And water rates are expected to rise. The city is drilling more wells primarily to save money, said engineering director Mike Quillen.
The new wells will cost a total of $3.5 million and should pump 11/2 MGD, so the city will make its money back over time, Fahey said. The city has the permits it needs from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Clearwater's Community Development Board.
The City Council okayed this last year but will discuss it further at a work session Monday morning because of a recent spate of phone calls and e-mails to City Hall.
Homeowners near the well sites were recently notified about the project in advance of a city zoning hearing. They started asking questions.
Their concerns run the gamut. Some don't want unsightly wells near their homes, and are worried about property values or whether their ponds will dry up.
Others have bigger environmental concerns. Northwood residents like Gary Shellenberger and Harold Becker did some research and found U.S. Geological Survey reports that link pumping from the aquifer with a greater threat of sinkholes.
Citing other examples, they fear that excessive pumping of underground water could lead to saltwater intrusion from Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, irreversibly contaminating the freshwater reservoir in the aquifer.
Still, the city and its consultants say the new wells will be safe. Fahey said the U.S. Geological Survey reports in question are from other parts of Florida where the geology is different.
David Wylie, a hydrogeologist working for the city, testified to Clearwater's Community Development Board that:
• Clearwater's geology makes it less prone to sinkholes than areas to the north. Clearwater has an underground layer of clay, while places like Pasco and Hernando counties and even Safety Harbor have little or no clay layer.
• The new wells will have little impact on the aquifer's water levels, which already fluctuate 5 to 15 feet between the rainy and dry seasons. Clearwater's wells will lower it about a foot.
• The new wells will actually help prevent saltwater intrusion by spreading out the pumping, so no single well is overpumped. The Southwest Florida Water Management District also concluded this before approving the city's plan.
Still, when suspicious residents at the development board hearing asked Wylie for an ironclad guarantee that nothing will go wrong, he couldn't give them one.
"I would never guarantee anything … no hydrogeologist would," he said, prompting jeers and catcalls from the crowd. Wylie added that the odds of a problem happening are "very, very slim to none."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.