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A troubled water odyssey

Having embarked on a joint venture flawed at the start and with undercapitalized business partners, Tampa Bay Water now has few easy options for completing the region's first seawater desalination plant. The builder, Covanta Tampa Construction, filed for bankruptcy protection Wednesday in an attempt to prevent the utility from firing Covanta and quickly hiring a replacement. With the dry season starting, officials need to move to keep this setback from further taxing the local groundwater supply.

Lawyers for Tampa Bay Water should promptly challenge the bankruptcy, which was designed to tie the hands of a government agency seeking to perform a critical public function. The desal plant, at Apollo Beach in Hillsborough County, was built to supply 25-million gallons of drinking water a day, a key part of a broader plan to reduce the need for groundwater pumping. Getting the plant open and functioning would serve a clear public interest, beyond the issue of recouping monetary value from a $110-million public water plant. Covanta's filing has the twisted effect of rewarding the company for poor performance _ for failing, repeatedly, to meet contractual deadlines to operate the plant efficiently. The plant needs a responsible operator, and using the courts to postpone that day is a misuse of the judicial system.

Tampa Bay Water should continue to work with Covanta as the legal battle proceeds. On the bright side, the facility has produced water and Covanta engineers are on site. Company officials have said they are close to correcting problems with the filtering process, and they have begun to address a related problem of disposing of an unexpected amount of leftover cleaning solution. These problems need to be corrected _ regardless of whether Covanta stays or goes. Whether Covanta will proceed in good faith is a serious question, especially given the underhanded way it used the bankruptcy to club its so-called public partner.

Meanwhile, officials should remain in talks with the four companies interested in taking over from Covanta. Tampa Bay Water will interview three companies next week that have made the short list to replace Covanta. All have experience operating desal plants, and the utility is confident it can correct the problems for millions of dollars less than what Covanta expects. We hope that's true. Given the empty assurances that Tampa Bay Water has made over the years, its own credibility is at stake. We at least see the opportunity for a new plant operator that would be more candid with the utility and the taxpayers about any monetary or operational problems. The 30-year contract for the public-private venture must be rooted in confidence and trust, and it was clear, even prior to the bankruptcy, that delays and mistrust had ruined the working relationship between the utility and Covanta.

With no clear end in sight, and with Tampa Bay Water pursuing several almost competing goals, local governments in the region might want to reconsider their easing of watering restrictions. Every bit helps, especially as we enter the dry winter months. With no way to predict the timetable of the New York bankruptcy courts, where Covanta filed for relief, and with Covanta even acknowledging that repairs could take "months," it would be prudent for the most populous members of Tampa Bay Water to take reasonable steps to curb consumption.

The dumbfounding part of the troubled odyssey in opening this important desal plant is that the contract arrangement was designed to limit the public's financial liability. We have seen, with the bankruptcy of a third contractor involved with the plant, that ceding control to private business doesn't always work. It's especially risky when government is trying to deliver a vital public service. Covanta's belief that Tampa Bay Water was driven by "false" deadlines betrays an almost unbelievable lack of appreciation for why the plant was being built. Curbing groundwater pumping as early as possible has obvious environmental benefits.

The utility says it has learned from the mistakes and any future desal project will be managed under tighter public control. That promise will be tested here, in the coming weeks, as Tampa Bay Water makes its legal moves to wrest control from Covanta, to select an interim operator and to make the case for conservation until the plant comes fully online.

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