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A Times Editorial

A leadership drought

Tampa Bay area water users have no choice but to repair the regional reservoir. The 15 billion- gallon reservoir is a critical piece of a diversified, environmentally efficient system to supply water to Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. But that doesn't take the sting out of a price tag that could reach $125 million. If anything, it underscores the lack of foresight, attention to detail and accountability that are eroding support for what should be a model of regional cooperation. Tampa Bay Water's elected board and its battle-scarred staff need to get the agency back on track.

The board approved a plan Monday to fix cracks in the four-year-old facility that have limited its use during the ongoing drought. The agency blames faulty design for a buildup of water between the basin's concrete lining and an underlying membrane. As water is drawn from the reservoir, pressure from moisture beneath cracks the concrete. Tampa Bay Water has spent millions of dollars to find the cause of the cracking, and it plans to spend hundreds of thousands more on short-term repairs before a permanent fix gets under way in 2011.

The cracking should not create cracks in a regional approach to supplying drinking water. The agency has succeeded in moving the region away from long and costly legal battles over access to water supplies, and it has met its targets to reduce groundwater pumping. While pumping has increased during the drought, the agency has been building an integrated supply system.

But all three major projects — the reservoir, surface water treatment facility and the seawater desalination plant — failed to deliver as promised. They took longer to build or more money to construct or operate than planned. While this summer's rains will fill the reservoir, the agency is suing the facility's designer, builder and construction manager to recoup the costs of repairs. The net effect is that the region's 2 million water customers have not gotten their money's worth, and the agency has lost the public's confidence.

The projects may have come online during his predecessor's tenure, but general manager Gerald Seeber, hired last year, is responsible now. His job should hinge on fixing the reservoir. The agency may rely on consultants for advice, but the senior staff needs to be accountable. An outside peer review process for major projects might help, but the staff would still need the expertise and candor to make informed recommendations to the board.

Board members, who are elected officials from the three county member governments, also too easily distance themselves from the agency's mistakes. Because none are directly elected to Tampa Bay Water, it is unlikely the board members would face political consequences for financial disasters that would otherwise ruin political careers. The board should hold an annual session, similar to a shareholders meeting, in all three jurisdictions it serves. Ratepayers would have an opportunity to challenge the board over the agency's performance, and board members would have a chance to explain how they are overseeing the agency and delivering water for a reasonable price.

The Tampa Bay area is going to have to continue to approach big challenges, from drinking water to mass transit to health care to business recruitment, on a regional basis. It is important for Tampa Bay Water to set a better example.

A leadership drought 06/16/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 16, 2009 7:19pm]
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