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Desalination plant takeover?

Building a plant that removes salt from seawater to meet the region's needs presents enough new challenges even without a midcourse leadership change. Now Tampa Bay Water wants to take control of this complex job. Today, the board of the water supply authority is scheduled to vote on whether to buy out the developers of the half-completed desalination plant in southern Hillsborough County. The staff maintains the savings in long-term debt for residents make it worth the risk. The real question is not how the vote will go, but how that decision will affect water utility policy in the future.

Though Tampa Bay Water had expected to buy out the private developers eventually, having the plant in private hands would have minimized the risks to taxpayers during the early years, when things are more likely to go wrong. Now, if the science behind desal is wrong, the plant design is flawed or the technology fails, the public won't be as insulated from the problems.

Today's vote is a choice between bad alternatives. If the board retains the private developer, Tampa Bay Desal, it may confront trouble later on, given the financial problems facing the parent company of one of its contractors, Covanta Tampa Bay. By taking over the project, Tampa Bay Water could use its strong bond rating to lower long-term financing costs, which would lower water rates for the utility's customers. Poseidon Resources, the developer of Tampa Bay Desal, acknowledges the board's right to a buy-out but insists it has the financing and resources to see the development through.

The overriding concern for all involved should be to get the plant built on time, with the operating capacity to meet the lower groundwater pumping levels set for next year. Ownership issues come second to the plant's performance, which will go a long way toward determining Tampa Bay Water's credibility. Before the first drop flows, every rung on the partnership ladder should be strong. That may mean the public will have to assume more of the risks. Better now than when a real crisis erupts. Poseidon has already laid aside much of the risk, by prevailing over legal challenges and obtaining the environmental permits to operate the plant.

Tampa Bay Water, Covanta and Poseidon have a reason to keep a separation civil. The performance of this plant, regardless of who owns it, will affect their ability to build similar plants in other communities. The two companies have said they're more interested in keeping the partnership alive in a different form than in fighting over ownership. That makes the board's decision easier. But larger questions remain.

Why did this project suffer repeated problems in the private sector? Do the new ownership and financing plan cover all contingencies or only the latest problem? Why are the major players complaining that Tampa Bay Water sprang a surprise, given the stakes for so many residents, companies and public agencies? Today's decision might raise more questions than it resolves, and it certainly will test the unity of this regional partnership.