Oldsmar to provide its own drinking water this year

OLDSMAR — Within five months, residents may be drinking water from the city's own water treatment plant.

Vice Mayor Jerry Beverland likens the completion of Oldsmar's reverse osmosis plant to the birth of a beautiful baby.

But instead of nine months, it took around 16 years.

The chief obstacle was funding the $19.7 million plant, according to longtime City Manager Bruce Haddock, who championed the idea.

"We got quite a few nos before we got a yes," he said.

The tide turned in 2008, when the Southwest Florida Water Management District's Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board awarded Oldsmar a grant worth more than $9 million.

"Without the funding, the project would have had a big question mark as to whether it would have been financially advantageous," Haddock said.

Water will be drawn from two brackish aquifers: the Tampa Limestone and the Upper Suwannee. It will come to the plant from 11 wells along Forest Lakes Boulevard.

Drinking water will be produced by pushing the salty water through special filtering membranes. Fluoride will be added before the water undergoes other processes and disinfection.

The idea for Oldsmar to have its own drinking water system first arose in 1996, when regional water wars cost Pinellas County utility customers tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills.

Later, water wholesaler Tampa Bay Water was exploring new sources for water, and it became clear that the price of water would continue to climb for years to come.

Since 2004, Oldsmar has been purchasing water from Pinellas County, which gets water from Tampa Bay Water. Previously, the city had purchased 90 percent of its water from St. Petersburg and the rest came from Pinellas.

Oldsmar officials decided that creating an alternative water source would help keep rates stable for city residents.

"If we could supply our own water, we would at least have more control over our own destiny," Haddock said, "and we wouldn't be captive to whatever Pinellas County and Tampa Bay Water were doing in the future."

A city consultant recently recommended no increases in Oldsmar's water rates through September 2016.

Last week, city leaders toured the new plant, the largest public works project in Oldsmar's history. Mayor Jim Ronecker called it "absolutely phenomenal."

"I was extremely impressed with the technology and how far we've come," he said. "It's an amazing feat for a small city to be able to accomplish something like that."

Beverland, who inspected pipes at the plant like a kid in a candy store, said he's proud the city stuck it out.

"We never gave up. Here we are with an incredible plant," he said. "I just hope the water tastes good."

Lisa Rhea, the city's public works director, is confident it will.

"Next year, we're entering the regional water taste test, and we're planning on winning," she said.

Other Pinellas cities have created alternative water supply systems, too. Dunedin opened its reverse osmosis plant in 1991, and Clearwater opened one in 2004. Tarpon Springs moved ahead with plans of its own in 2008 and hopes to begin supplying its own drinking water in about two years.

Oldsmar's plant on Commerce Boulevard is permitted to supply an average of 2 million gallons of water per day, with a peak allowance of 3.2 million. On average, the city uses about 1.5 million gallons a day, Rhea said.

Over the next few months, the city plans to wrap up piping work and hire additional plant staff.

By July, Oldsmar hopes to have the plant online, but it won't be providing water to residents right away. The city plans to conduct a number of tests first.

Around late August, Oldsmar will provide residents with a blend of city and county water. By the end of September, city officials hope, 100 percent Oldsmar water will flow from residents' taps.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.

Plant timeline

1996: Officials decide to explore the idea of Oldsmar supplying its own water.

1998: City Council approves a plan to build a water treatment plant, a year after initiating a study of its feasibility.

1999: Swiftmud turns down city request for grant to cover half the project's cost.

2001: City officials approve the project's second phase, which includes a pilot well for tests and more study.

2005: Gov. Jeb Bush vetoes $500,000 to help design the system.

2006: Swiftmud approves a water use permit that allows city to withdraw brackish water from city wells. Gov. Bush vetoes $2 million earmarked to start the project.

2008: Swiftmud's Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board awards Oldsmar a $9 million grant.

2009: City Council awards contract to construct six water production well sites, with a total of 11 wells.

2010: Florida Department of Environmental Protection gives Oldsmar $3 million in federal stimulus funding. Council decides to take out $5.5 million loan to finance the remaining cost. City breaks ground on the plant.

Oldsmar to provide its own drinking water this year 04/28/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 28, 2012 2:50pm]

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