WESLEY CHAPEL — It's not exactly a marketer's dream and likely won't show up on a billboard welcoming travelers, but Pasco County will soon lay claim to a landmark all its own: the largest reclaimed water reservoir in the nation.
After years of debate, engineering studies and cost estimates, the county is a couple of weeks from launching a massive excavation project at a former mine east of Interstate 75 at Boyette and Overpass roads.
The 500 million-gallon reservoir was recommended by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a partner in the project, to help control reclaimed water levels through the region's wet and dry spells and enable the system to take on new customers from the county's east and south ends.
Since mid July, workers have been busy draining two ponds and building berms and roads in preparation for the reservoir. To gauge its immensity, imagine a lake of reclaimed water — basically, treated sewage — roughly the size of 60 football fields.
Pam Wright, Pasco's reclaimed water program coordinator, said it's understandable if some folks are put off by the thought, but reclaimed water has come far since its debut 30 years ago in Pinellas County.
"There's still a lot of education that needs to be done," she said. "The misconception is that it smells like rotten eggs. The truth is there's almost no odor. If anything, there's a faint chlorine smell."
At 80 acres and 28 feet deep, the reservoir should be equipped to handle Florida's wet summers while ensuring a steady supply to homes, golf courses and citrus growers during the winter, officials said. About 12,000 homes in two dozen Pasco subdivisions irrigate with reclaimed water. The county produces about 20 million gallons of reclaimed water a day.
Officials have pushed for the reservoir for years. Using reclaimed water reduces stress on the aquifer from groundwater pumping, a trigger for sinkholes. Pinellas, the region's largest consumer, installed the first system in the early 1980s in St. Petersburg. Now, about 10 percent of water consumed across Swiftmud's 16 counties comes from reclaimed water.
Pasco's project is expected to be finished in February 2015. It hasn't come without a hitch, though. Pegged five years ago at $18 million, the project ballooned to $31 million and then $36 million because of higher construction costs and initial estimates that failed to include a much-needed underground wall, or cutoff, to capture seepage.
"That was a huge change," utilities director Bruce Kennedy said. "The original project estimate did not have that in it."
The reservoir itself will be covered by a synthetic liner. A fence and a 14-foot landscaped berm will encircle the site.
Swiftmud has committed to reimburse $9 million to offset the county's costs. In January, the district's board will vote to increase that reimbursement to $18 million in total. Kennedy said the balance of the funding, another $18 million, will come from loans paid by Pasco ratepayers.
Officials are optimistic they'll avoid problems, including sinkholes, that plagued a 20-acre reclaimed water reservoir in Land O'Lakes a few years ago. For one, they say, they've performed more geological tests and determined soil conditions at Boyette are better than at the Land O'Lakes site.
"We've learned a lot since then," Wright said. "When this is done, this will be the largest of its kind in the country."
Rich Shopes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.