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Tampa Bay’s future water supply likely to be river to tap

An impasse over a proposed groundwater project and the high cost of desalination limited the options.
Hillsborough County's northwest regional reclaimed water facility is shown in March. Monday, the Tampa Bay Water board of directors nixed a plan to add new groundwater water wells in southern Hillsborough if reclaimed water was injected simultaneously at sites several miles away. The plan was shelved because the county and regional water supplier couldn't agree on a price for the reclaimed water.
Hillsborough County's northwest regional reclaimed water facility is shown in March. Monday, the Tampa Bay Water board of directors nixed a plan to add new groundwater water wells in southern Hillsborough if reclaimed water was injected simultaneously at sites several miles away. The plan was shelved because the county and regional water supplier couldn't agree on a price for the reclaimed water. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published May 16

CLEARWATER — Skimming and treating more from the Alafia and Hillsborough rivers and Tampa Bypass Canal emerged Monday as the leading choice to bolster the region’s future drinking water supply.

The plan — to expand the existing, 20-year-old surface water treatment plant in Tampa or build a brand new plant near the C.W. “Bill” Young Regional Reservoir — is the least costly of the three alternatives that had been under consideration by Tampa Bay Water. The regional utility has been studying ways to add 10 million gallons a day to the drinking water supply by 2028 to serve Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and the cities of New Port Richey, Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The alternatives dwindled Monday when the Tampa Bay Water board of directors voted unanimously to shelve a plan to build new groundwater wells in southern Hillsborough. That proposal required Hillsborough County simultaneously injecting reclaimed water at sites near the coast to shield potential saltwater intrusion and to boost the underground water levels at the new well field several miles away.

Related: South Hillsborough taps could be bolstered by reclaimed water

The idea fell apart after the utility and Hillsborough County could not come to terms on a value of the treated wastewater. A Tampa Bay Water consultant calculated the potential price at 69 cents per 1,000 gallons, but the utility’s initial written offer called for no reimbursement until Hillsborough adopted a bulk water rate for heavy users. The county, meanwhile, requested $1.69 per 1,000 gallons.

“This is not a viable project and should not be considered,” said St. Petersburg City Council member Lisset Hanewicz in making to motion to drop the proposal.

That left treating additional surface water or sea water as the only remaining choices, but board members expressed sticker shock at the $310 million cost to expand the desalination plant in Apollo Beach.

“Seems pricey to say the least,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers.

Expanding the existing surface water treatment plant, west of North Falkenburg Road, will cost an estimated $91 million, and building a new plant near the reservoir in eastern Hillsborough carries a price tag of $145.6 million.

Eggers sought to cut the expanded desalination plant from future consideration as well, but acquiesced to a suggestion from Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen to allow the board to continue its due diligence. Cohen, too, acknowledged the price tag for desalinated water makes it unlikely to be the eventual choice. The board is scheduled to make a final decision in the coming months.

Tampa Bay Water’s master plan calls for adding new sources by 2028 and again by 2034 to meet growing demand. Treating and storing river water allows the utility to take advantage of Florida’s heavy summertime rain. Surface water accounted for about 71 million gallons a day, or more than a third of the region’s drinking water supply, during the month of April.

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