The region's reservoir is key to providing a dependable water supply for 2.4 million people in the Tampa Bay area. There is no denying that Tampa Bay Water, the agency that runs it, must fix the cracking in the reservoir and make it fully functional again to help the region cope with the ongoing drought.
Yet the plan for moving forward, which goes to the utility's governing board Monday, highlights the problem that brought us here: The agency lacks the expertise to oversee the system it operates.
The four-year-old reservoir, in southeastern Hillsborough County, is well worth fixing and officials need to get it right. The 15 billion gallon basin holds water skimmed from area rivers during the rainy season to help offset demand in the winter, reducing groundwater pumping. Tampa Bay Water blames a faulty design for a buildup of water beneath the reservoir's cement lining, which pushes and cracks the reservoir walls as water is drawn from the basin. Tampa Bay Water says a permanent fix could cost $125 million when repairs start in 2012.
The cost for repairs could almost equal the reservoir's $140 million construction cost. Still, the three-county utility, which serves Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco, needs to press ahead. The reservoir is a key element of a diversified and efficient water supply system, and the day may come when the region needs another one. The only alternative to abandoning the reservoir now is to increase pumping, which would damage the environment and revive the regional water wars. Nobody wants that. The repairs are the right investment. But they also are only part of the solution.
The utility staff wants to spend up to $1 million on consultants to help it choose a contractor for the repairs. It wants a scientific review of the repair plans, which could cost another $1 million, and an outside engineer to act as the agency's watchdog as the repairs are made. There is value to bringing independent voices and peer review to the repair project, but this approach looks wasteful. A proposed contract with auditors KPMG to screen contractors calls for paying a senior partner $350 an hour for up to 680 hours and $300 an hour for other staffers. It is hard to imagine the utility cannot draw qualified expertise from its six member governments, which operate — among other facilities — a major seaport, two airports and three sports arenas.
Tampa Bay Water says the use of consultants limits the public agency's financial risks. Officials also argue that KPMG's expertise could produce savings on repairs that "far outstrip" the company's fees. That remains to be seen. The problem with using consultants is that it farms out accountability. For years, the agency has blamed third parties for problems with its various water supply projects. The agency needs to decide if it wants to be a full-fledged utility or a glorified procurement office.