The utility that provides water to Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties is expected to decide Monday whether to spend $163 million to fix and expand its reservoir. Ratepayers understandably have sticker shock over the costs for repairing a 6-year-old facility. Still, the work should be done, because the reservoir is the most efficient and environmentally responsible way to provide water to 2.4 million people throughout the bay area. A permanent fix and additional capacity would make the entire water supply system more reliable and give the region more control over how it grows. But the utility has to get it right.
The 15 billion-gallon reservoir in southeastern Hillsborough holds water skimmed from area rivers during the rainy season. The utility that runs it, Tampa Bay Water, blames a faulty design for a buildup of water under the cement lining of the basin that has caused extensive cracking in the reservoir walls. The utility's governing board will consider a fix Monday that calls for digging out and replacing the cement face and the impermeable lining beneath it. Workers would install a drain to pull water away from the cement face, removing the buildup of pressure that has caused cracking in the basin.
A permanent fix is the only sound course. Tampa Bay Water is suing the reservoir's designer, and any award it receives would offset the $121 million repair cost. The utility also has built protections into the deal. It hired an outside engineering firm to oversee construction, sent the project out for peer review and required the contractor to post financial guarantees. These are essential for an agency with a poor history of getting its major capital projects off the ground.
The tougher issue is whether to expand the reservoir by another 3 billion gallons. Tampa Bay Water acknowledges that its water supply sources — which include groundwater pumping and a desalination plant — are adequate to serve demand for the next 15 to 20 years. But the life expectancy of the renovated reservoir is 50 years. It makes no sense to put off the expansion when the basin will be drained anyway for up to two years for the repairs. Postponing the work would require shutting down the reservoir again, depreciating the asset and forcing the utility to use more expensive water in the interim.
An expansion now would make the entire system more reliable by creating a cushion against any shortage from groundwater or the desal plant. Expanding the basin makes the region more prepared to handle drought conditions. It also could enable the utility to cut back on pumping even more; in that sense, the expansion serves the policy goals of the regional water management agency, Swiftmud. That could be critical in helping Tampa Bay Water secure state funding for supply projects in the future.
The long-term availability of water is fundamental for growth. And the broad advantages of investing $42 million now for the expansion are clear. Still, the flip side of giving the reservoir a bigger role is the importance of getting the construction job right. The utility needs to stay on top of the project. The public has shelled out plenty. It expects and deserves results.