CLEARWATER — Fixing Tampa Bay Water's cracked reservoir could cost between $120 million and $170 million, according to the repair proposals from three contractors that were unveiled Monday at the utility's board meeting.
Expanding the 15-billion-gallon reservoir — already Florida's largest — by 3 billion gallons would add $40 million to the tab, engineer Jon Kennedy told the utility board. The whole package could wind up costing even more. Or it could cost less.
"The costs may fluctuate and come back different," Kennedy told the board, depending on the negotiations with the three contractors.
The big question mark, at this point, is whether it will require raising the utility's rates. At this point, no one knows, although last year utility officials said it was possible.
However, in a budget workshop where rising expenses from the desalination plant came up, several board members said they wanted to avoid any rate hikes right now, given the region's economic conditions.
"I can't see how we can justify asking for one more penny from our constituents," Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman told her colleagues on the board of Tampa Bay Water, which supplies water wholesale to Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough utilities to sell to customers.
The utility opened the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir in June 2005 to store water skimmed from the Alafia and Hillsborough rivers and Tampa Bypass Canal. The reservoir, named for the longtime congressman from Pinellas County, covers about 1,100 acres in Hillsborough County.
The reservoir's walls consist of an earthen embankment as wide as a football field at its base, averaging about 50 feet high. An impermeable membrane buried in the embankment prevents leaks. The embankment's top layer, a mixture of soil and concrete to prevent erosion, began cracking in December 2006. Some cracks were up to 400 feet long and up to 15½ inches deep. Workers patched the cracks, but the patches didn't last.
An investigation found water is getting trapped between the soil-concrete lining and the membrane. As long as the reservoir is full, the trapped water remains stable. When the utility draws down the reservoir, though, pressure increases on trapped water in some areas, producing cracks and soil erosion.
The cracks have not been deemed a safety hazard to the structure, but utility officials say if they don't fix their underlying cause, conditions could get worse. But the reservoir's designer, HDR Engineering, says the problem is not that serious, and could be solved with a simple monitoring and maintenance program that would cost less than $1 million a year.
Tampa Bay Water's lawsuit against HDR is set for trial in July. Utility officials are hoping any damages won in the lawsuit will defray the cost of fixing the reservoir and eliminate the need to raise rates.
The three companies vying for the contract to fix the reservoir are Granite Construction Co., Kiewit Infrastructure South and Skanska USA Civil Southeast. Initially, utility officials had pegged the repair price tag at $125 million — nearly as much as the $144 million reservoir cost to build originally.
While the range of possible costs now exceeds that estimate, Kennedy said those estimates also include some items that were not part of the original request for proposals — five years of maintenance after the repair work, for instance.
The board will hold a special workshop May 16 to hear all the proposals, and then will vote in June on which one to negotiate a contract with. The final vote on that contract is slated for August.
During the negotiations, the board will make a decision on the proposed expansion of the reservoir, which will require building the walls higher. Kennedy said the plans call for starting work on the repair — and, if approved, the expansion — in September 2012. Officials have said the reservoir would have to be drained for two years to complete the work.
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.