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Leader fears wastewater might dry up

The expansion of the North Pinellas reclaimed water system is among the county's most expensive public works projects.

While County Commissioner Karen Seel understands how important reclamation is to conserving drinking water, she is a steadfast critic of the expansion project, saying reliable sources of wastewater that can be treated and sold to homeowners have not been identified.

She fears the county will end up with a multimillion-dollar system of pipes that can't be filled.

"I want to be upfront with our customers," Seel said. "There's a real possibility that we will have to have system shutdowns ... in years to come."

As development has stressed Florida's aquifers, communities across the state have looked to treating wastewater from sinks, showers and toilets so that it can be reclaimed and reused, chiefly for irrigation.

The county has committed $18-million to expand the reclaimed water network in North Pinellas. If all goes according to plan, the work should be finished in two years at a cost of about $61-million.

State grants will cover $12.4-million of that amount; the rest will come from fees customers pay to the county utilities department.

The money will expand the availability of reclaimed water to an area roughly bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the west, U.S. 19 to the east, Bee Pond Road to the north and Hermosa Drive to the south.

Reclaimed water is widely available in the utility department's South Pinellas network, which has abundant supply and its own treatment plant, Cross Bayou Water Reclamation Facility.

The North Pinellas network, which is not connected to its southern sibling, serves 2,362 customers. A smattering of subdivisions, including Highland Lakes, get the service.

When expansion is complete, officials say, the network will be able to provide reclaimed water to more than 10,600 North Pinellas customers.

Homeowners in the new service area will have to pay a $7 availability fee monthly for the next 30 years to pay off municipal bonds issued to fund construction. To get reclaimed water, it's an extra $2 a month.

County officials say they'll get enough users to increase the amount of drinking water saved through North Pinellas' reclaimed network from 1.3-million gallons a day to 4-million gallons a day.

That makes a dent, given that the department's North Pinellas customers consume about 20-million gallons of drinking water every 24 hours.

The network being built is designed to provide 12.6-million gallons of reclaimed water daily.

The county will draw the water from a variety of sources. Of the 12.6-million gallons, 7.8-million gallons are to come from the county's North Pinellas treatment plant, the William E. Dunn Water Reclamation Facility.

Another 1-million will come from a storage unit designed to collect excess water from Lake Tarpon in the rainy season.

The remaining 3.8-million gallons of wastewater needed will be purchased from the cities of Clearwater and Oldsmar at a cost of $138,700 a year.

But the agreement to purchase reclaimed water from Clearwater ends in 2012, and that's what has Seel and other county leaders worried.

Clearwater is building its own reclaimed water network, and city officials say that by 2014 or 2015, they will have to start taking at least a portion of the 3-million gallons a day they are now committed to giving the county.

"Our position toward the county is that we would satisfy our demands first," said Andy Neff, the city utilities director, "then sell excess to the county at increased cost."

Pick Talley, the county utilities director, acknowledges the project to expand the county's reclaimed water network carries risks, but he thinks they can be overcome.

To deal with potential losses of reclaimed water sources, Talley said, the county could expand the capacity of the Lake Tarpon storage unit, mix drinking water into the reclaimed system or adopt conservation measures such as shutting the network down a few days a week.

"In my professional opinion," Talley said, "those are enough options for the county to manage any potential loss."

County Commissioner Susan Latvala said she, like most of the board's members except Seel, had long supported the expansion, believing that availability of reclaimed water did not pose a problem.

Then came the Brooker Creek Preserve pumping plan, which was made public this year and became a public relations fiasco for the county.

Talley's idea was to pump water from Brooker Creek Preserve to irrigate some nearby private golf courses, which the county is now committed to providing with 350,000 gallons of reclaimed water a day.

The plan, now in limbo, would have allowed that reclaimed water to be diverted from the courses and into the new system. Water pumped from the preserve would have been used to meet the county's commitment to the golf courses.

Latvala said Talley initially pursued the pumping plan without informing the commission, which troubled her and led her to wonder whether there really is enough reclaimed water for the new network.

"This is a serious thing," Latvala said. "I'm very concerned that there are promises that have been made that we are not going to be able to keep."

But stepping back now is probably not an option.

County Commissioner Bob Stewart supports the expansion project, although he has frequently put tough questions to Talley.

Stewart points out that reclaimed water projects are effective conservation tools and that residents say they want the service.

Then there's the investment that has already been made.

"We have spent so much on the project already," Stewart said. "I think we have to move forward."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 445-4166.

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