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Time for desal proposals is now

Who can say that we have no water problem? No one. For at least 25 years many communities within our region have pursued water conservation efforts, retrofitting homes with low-flow devices, reusing effluent for irrigation, changing water-use habits and so on. St. Petersburg has the largest reuse program in the United States; Largo is well known for its aggressive efforts _ especially when its size is considered. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and Tampa, have all employed a variety of programs from water-conserving rates to water-conserving codes.

Still, we have a water problem. People need water; more people need more water. And since our water comes solely from rainfall, our best efforts may not be enough. Though we get 54 inches of rain in an average year, most of it is "lost" to plants and evaporation. What's left gives us about 6 inches to "manage" for human use. It's not a lot.

So what's the answer? Building moratoriums? A gate around our community? More litigation?

The answer is simple: We need a safe, sustainable, drought-proof, environmentally friendly water supply. We need alternative sources. And we need them now. The good news is that local governments with support from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, are developing those water supplies. They are using tested technologies, such as well field and wetland rehydration with treated wastewater or stormwater, aquifer storage and recovery, indirect potable use of wastewater and so on.

And there's desal. Desalination. Taking salt out of the water and creating fresh drinking water. Until a few months ago, it seemed improbable for Florida. Now, with new research led by Swiftmud, gulf water desal is very real, very doable and acceptable to environmental regulators. For those of us in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, it offers a previously unreachable solution. An endless supply of local water. An end to the water wars.

There are those who resist desal. They say the cost is high. But compared to what? Right now, consumers here pay less than one-half penny per gallon for water delivered to their homes. Even if desal were the only source of water, we would still pay less than a half-penny per gallon. When the costs of litigation, environmental damage and ill will are factored in, desal is comparable and practical _ without the negative political impacts. No one is suggesting that desal be our only water source, rather that it should be blended with other sustainable supplies.

There are those who say that desalination will be harmful to our beautiful coastal areas. In fact, there is compelling research to demonstrate that properly diluted, the brine byproduct of desal, concentrated salt, can be effectively and efficiently diluted to levels that are not toxic to marine life. Desal will not harm our coastal environment or the life that depends on it.

There are those who say that desalination uses a lot of energy. This is true. But power required to generate water could be used for any purpose. That is, power companies have excess capacity built into their systems for growth. Failing to use that capacity for water doesn't mean it won't be used _ just that it won't be used to make water. Why not use that permitted excess capacity in the public interest? Why not use it to generate water and spare our environment and our natural systems?

Desalination offers a safe, reasonable, sustainable, drought-proof answer to our chronic water problems. So what are we waiting for? Several private companies have expressed an interest in developing a proposal to provide desalinated water. In a meeting last month, the governing board of Swiftmud allocated more than $2-million from its New Water Sources Initiative for desal. While the district supports exploration of the technology, it does not supply water to homes, so any proposal must come from those who have customers: local government or the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority. So far, no one has stepped up to the plate, though some half-stepping has occurred.

But this is not the time for half-stepping. This is the time for solid, aggressive leadership. To provide an even greater incentive, the Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board, the local arm of Swiftmud, is allocating an additional $600,000 toward support of desalination.

Why wait? We only delay the inevitable. And every delay costs more money. If we are to spend money for water, let us spend it on water projects, not water lawyers. Every delay continues the increasing environmental damage. I urge St. Petersburg and Pinellas County to move the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority past the "request for information" process and straight into a "request for proposals." A request for information will not provide a proposal, but a request for proposals will give us the information we need, as a community, to decide if this is what we want. The Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board is prepared to support that leadership. We need to move forward now!

David Welch is a St. Petersburg City Council member and a member of Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board.