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Desal note to put bureaucrats on notice

City Manager Costa Vatikiotis' letter to three state agencies reviewing proposals for a desalination plant is about as readable as a college science textbook.

It discusses, among other things, "the mixing ratio of the deeper water column" and "the purported benign effects of the diluted brine discharge."

But the letter's language and tone will convey this subtle message to state bureaucrats: A Tarpon Springs staff member can read and understand the technical language of the proposals. They are not dealing with a bunch of amateurs.

Vatikiotis, who has a doctorate in engineering, handed out the three-page letter to the City Commission on Tuesday night, and the commissioners agreed he should mail it. It expresses the city's initial concerns about proposals from two development teams to build a desalination plant near the city.

Copies will go to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, which is the agency that has solicited proposals for a desalination plant.

The letter won't make much sense to the average Tarpon Springs resident, but "it should make for interesting reading at these regulatory agencies," Vatikiotis said.

City Commissioner George Bobotas, a scientist who has a doctorate of his own, called the letter "very cogent" and said Vatikiotis had earned a big chunk of his annual salary by writing it.

"Getting this kind of analysis from the private sector is expensive," he said.

Vatikiotis earned his doctorate in mechanical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He said his studies for his doctoral thesis on how fluids move through porous media directly apply to understanding how water moves underground.

Still, the commission is also seeking a consultant to predict how the plant might affect plants and fish in the coastal grass flats.

"This is the first plant like this in the country," said Commissioner Karen Brayboy. She said commissioners want to foresee as many of the plant's effects as possible, because if it is built, it will be around for a long time.

Regional water officials say the Tampa Bay area needs a desalination plant to boost the area's drinking water supply. A site will be chosen by fall. Sites in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties have been proposed.

The plant will strain salt from 20-million gallons of seawater a day. Desalination produces a salty concentrate. Vatikiotis worried that getting rid of the concentrate in the gulf could hurt plants and animals. He asked the regulators to consider having the plant inject the byproduct into deep wells. The natural flow of underground water would dilute it and carry it out to sea, he said.

Vatikiotis' letter also questioned a proposal to pull the saltwater that would be turned into drinking water from deep wells.

It is possible that pulling lots of water from that level could disturb shallow freshwater wells, he said. After all, "fissures and areas of low porosity exist, and consequently, hydraulic connections are likely to exist between the seawater aquifer and the two shallower aquifers," he wrote.