TARPON SPRINGS — The city has received the final permit needed to start building its long-planned water treatment plant. But the $45 million project may continue to be hampered by the legal maneuvering of a local resident.
Tuesday, the Southwest Florida Water Management District's governing board modified a water use permit for Tarpon Springs so the city can draw more water — 4.2 million gallons a day — from underground.
Tarpon Springs is currently permitted to draw 1.38 million gallons a day from seven existing well fields, but it must purchase much of its drinking water from Pinellas County.
The pumping increase granted by Swiftmud, along with the construction of the water treatment plant, will allow the city to become water independent.
Swiftmud had planned to issue the permit last October, but Henry Ross, a Tarpon Springs resident, filed an objection to the permit.
In a Jan. 18 hearing before an administrative law judge, Ross asked that the city be denied the increase. Ross argued that the new treatment plant and wells will be a detriment to the local environment. But the judge ruled that Ross lacked standing to challenge the permit and recommended that Swiftmud grant it. That's what the board did Tuesday.
City officials said they don't know if Ross will file an appeal with the Second District Court of Appeal.
On January 28, the state Department of Environmental Protection granted Tarpon a permit it needed for the project after one of Ross' challenges. The permit would allow the treatment plant to discharge 2.79 million gallons of industrial wastewater per day into a canal. Ross has appealed that decision to the appeal court. That case has not yet been heard.
Ross could not be reached for this article.
Paul Smith, Tarpon's Public Services director, said the legal actions have delayed the project for almost a year and is costing the city thousands of dollars. The city has already paid nearly $40,000 in legal fees defending the project against Ross. That doesn't include the cost of flying in experts to testify on the city's behalf.
"Then there's the staff time. The fact that with the delay, we are paying for the more expensive water value from the county, and that exceeds any legal bill to date," Smith said. "But this our democracy in action."
City Commissioner Chris Alahouzos said he wants Ross to end his legal challenges for the good of the city.
"This is a project that's going to be worth having in Tarpon," Alahouzos said. "It's very beneficial to the people of Tarpon Springs by giving us the advantage of having our own water system. And now, with the economy, we can build our plant economically with good quality."
In 2006, Tarpon residents voted to build the reverse osmosis water treatment plant in a citywide referendum.
The plant would produce drinking water by pushing brackish, or salty, water through special filtering membranes. The brackish water would be pumped from wells drilled 100 to 150 feet deep north of the Anclote River. The resulting salt concentrate, or brine, would be flushed into an industrial canal that empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
Ross has argued that the city should instead use an underground injection well system that sends the discharge back into the ground. The city has countered that the use of injection wells was considered but was determined to not be feasible.
Smith said the only way the project can be delayed now is for an appeal court judge to halt it.
With the Swiftmud permit, Smith said the city can start construction, but will do so cautiously by just installing monitoring wells for the project.
"We can now start some elements of construction," he said. "It will be the elements that minimize our risk (if a judge doesn't rule in the city's favor)."
It will take 19 months to complete the project once construction starts, Smith said.
Contact Demorris A. Lee at [email protected] and (727) 445-4174