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Activists have say in desal decision

Tampa Bay Water seeks residents' input to avoid conflicts in selecting sites for two desalination plants in Pinellas.

Two years ago, Marsha Weaver helped defeat a proposed desalination plant at Walsingham Park.

These days, the neighborhood activist still has something to say on desalination, but she's doing it from a different perspective.

Weaver, along with three other members of her citizens group, now sits on a committee reviewing possible sites for two desalination plants in Pinellas County.

Tampa Bay Water, the regional utility that plans to build the plants, is trying to avoid the same public relations blunder that the Pinellas County Commission made at Walsingham Park in unincorporated Largo.

Water officials have made sure to give the neighborhood activists like Weaver a voice early on in the process. They've also scheduled public meetings and hearings on the issue well before the Tampa Bay Water governing board picks the sites in December.

The first two open houses are this month. Tampa Bay Water staff members plan to announce several "technically feasible" sites for the brackish water desalination plants. They will ask residents for input on the locations and criteria that should be used to select the best two sites.

The areas Tampa Bay Water officials believe could support small desalination plants are generally in the eastern part of Clearwater, at the city's existing well field, and an area around Pinellas Park and northern St. Petersburg.

The first open house is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 17 at the Long Center, 1501 N Belcher Road, Clearwater. The second meeting is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 19 at the Dixie Hollins High School gym, 4949 62nd St. N, St. Petersburg.

Weaver says it's important the areas under consideration for the desalination projects have "maximum input."

"So far, I think they (Tampa Bay Water) have done the right thing," Weaver said. "It's so important for the public to get to these meetings."

Weaver has had a crash course on water issues, thanks mostly to the Pinellas County Commission's proposal in 1997 to build a 14-million-gallon-per-day desalination plant in Walsingham Park.

By the time residents near Walsingham learned of the county's plans, it was only a few weeks before commissioners were going to vote on a contract with Permasep, a company set up by DuPont to operate the plant.

Residents were outraged commissioners had not gathered public input. The ensuing public protest led commissioners to delay the project and then kill it in September.

Michelle Klase, Tampa Bay Water spokeswoman, said the public will get plenty of chances to comment on the desalination projects before a decision is made.

"The entire philosophy of Tampa Bay Water is to go out and engage the public early," Klase said.

Weaver says the Tampa Bay Water plan is more realistic than the county's failed project. The two proposed plants would only withdraw 5-million to 6-million gallons of brackish water a day.

But she also conceded that residents will have much less sway with the Tampa Bay Water governing board than they had with the County Commission. The nine-member Tampa Bay Water board is made up of two Pinellas County commissioners, as well as representatives from Hillsborough and Pasco counties and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey.

Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel said there is plenty of political pressure on Pinellas to support the desalination plants.

Officials in Hillsborough and Pasco counties have complained they are carrying the burden of supplying the region with water. While Pasco County well fields have traditionally supplied most of Pinellas' drinking water, Hillsborough County will provide most of the new alternatives for the region, including a 25-million-gallon-a-day seawater desalination plant, a new well field and a freshwater reservoir.

"I think we've done a good job on conservation and (using) reclaimed water," Seel said. "I think we absolutely are going to have to step up to the plate (with desalination) because it's the right thing to do. We do not want to send a message of "Not in my back yard.' "

Yet, even though Weaver and her fellow neighborhood activists are now part of the process, they're not completely sold on the idea of brackish water desalination plants in Pinellas County.

Jim Heap, president of United Citizens of Pinellas County, said he is still concerned about the danger of sinkholes caused from pumping the brackish water, as well as what happens with the briny waste produced by the plants.

But Heap says Tampa Bay Water is making a good faith effort at getting the public involved.

"I really do think their attitude is right," Heap said. The County Commission's biggest mistake "was assuming nobody cared; that we were asleep and it wouldn't ruffle anybody's feathers."