A jury's decision that private engineers are not responsible for the cracks in Tampa Bay Water's mammoth reservoir probably means higher water bills for decades to pay for repairs. The agency's governing board, which meets Monday, should carefully consider whether to appeal the verdict. But as maddening as it is that taxpayers would have to pay twice to get the reservoir right, there needs to be a permanent fix. Board members should prepare water users to pay for much of the $121 million repair job, and they need to ensure that this time the work is done right.
After hearing the case for a month, a federal jury took less than four hours Tuesday to conclude that HDR Engineering, the firm that designed the reservoir, is not responsible for cracking in the soil-concrete wall that lines the 15 billion-gallon facility. The utility that supplies drinking water to Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties argued that design flaws allowed pressure to build on the liner as water was being withdrawn from the basin, causing cracks in the concrete face. HDR argued some cracking was expected, that the cracks were not serious and that any problems are not the company's fault.
Taxpayers certainly deserved better than to have cracks in the $146 million reservoir only 18 months after it opened in June 2005. Some cracks were up to 400 feet long and more than 15 inches deep. Workers patched the cracks, but the sealant didn't hold. While inspectors say the cracks do not make the reservoir unstable — the basin is lined with an impermeable membrane — the damage is too extensive for a young facility that this region should expect to function well for decades.
The board should not waver in its plan for a permanent fix. Skimming water from area rivers during the rainy season and storing it for later use reduces the need to pursue more expensive and environmentally damaging water supply sources, from groundwater to desalinated water. Allowing the cracking to persist ensures the reservoir will be shut down continually for ongoing repairs, making poor use of an expensive public asset. The board should take the long view on the most efficient way to meet the region's water needs. That may take some explaining for the elected representatives on the utility board, but that's their public responsibility.
The agency has crafted a much more responsible framework for contracting out the repair job. Rather than separately hiring a design engineer and builder, the agency will have a single company undertake the fix. That will keep fingers from pointing in every direction if anything goes wrong. Still, barring any change from the jury verdict, area taxpayers could end up paying roughly $5 a year for the next 30 years for this avoidable mistake.
Tampa Bay Water should start to rebuild public confidence by having an open discussion about what went wrong. While state law gives public agencies some leeway to discuss legal matters behind closed doors, the issue is not only whether to appeal but why the agency got caught in this position in the first place. This trial was about the competence of Tampa Bay Water as much as it was about HDR's. The public needs some assurance that the culture has changed — not only the contracts.