Tampa Bay Water voted Monday to sue the three companies responsible for building its $146-million reservoir over cracks that are limiting the capacity of the reservoir during the ongoing drought.
The reservoir problems could lead to tighter water restrictions, officials said.
The region is facing "extreme water shortage conditions as the summer rainy season ends," Don Polmann, the utility's science and engineering director, wrote in a memo to the board.
If it weren't for the cracks, said the utility's senior manager, Alison Adams, "I could've filled that reservoir up" with another 3-billion gallons of water at the end of the summer.
Instead, the utility stopped filling the 15-billion gallon reservoir in August, and it is now less than half full at 5.7-billion gallons.
Meanwhile, summer turned out to be drier than expected, and the Hillsborough River is running a third of what was predicted, Adams said.
So the utility is running its desalination plant at its capacity of 25-million gallons a day.
"I'm trying to get the reservoir to last until April, if we're lucky," Adams told the board.
The utility board voted 8-0 Monday to sue the three companies responsible for building the facility: HDR Engineering, which designed the reservoir; Barnard Construction Co., which built it; and Construction Dynamics Group, which oversaw the construction. The board also agreed to fire HDR from its job of filing monitoring reports on the reservoir. Board members agreed they wanted to make sure those companies paid for fixing the cracks.
"On behalf of the ratepayers and the taxpayers, I want to make sure the cost of repairs is not borne by them," Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda, a utility board member, said before the vote.
HDR spokeswoman Jackie Cox said the company was disappointed about being fired and sued, because "it is our belief that a great many questions remain to be answered as to the soil cement issues at the reservoir, and any legal action is premature."
The regional utility opened the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir in June 2005 as a place to store water skimmed from the Alafia River, Hillsborough River and Tampa Bypass Canal. The reservoir, named for the longtime congressman from Pinellas County, is the largest in Florida, covering about 1,100 acres.
The reservoir's walls consist of an earthen embankment as wide as a football field at its base, averaging about 50 feet high, with an impermeable membrane buried in the embankment to prevent leaks. The top layer of the embankment is a mixture of soil and cement to prevent erosion, and that's what cracked in December 2006. Some cracks were up to 400 feet long and up to 151/2 inches deep.
Water officials say that the residents living around the reservoir shouldn't worry about the walls failing and inundating their homes.
Engineers concluded that "filling the reservoir up and draining it ... the action of lowering the water level" is causing the cracks, Polmann said. Water is getting under the top soil-cement layer instead of draining into the reservoir and is producing pressure under the layer.