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Desalination plant, reservoir helping Tampa Bay endure Florida's fiery drought

Aircraft from the U.S. Forest Service and the Florida Forest Service were used to help fight a massive wildfire on April 9 in Hernando Beach. Lightning most likely ignited a fire that fanned into flames aided by windy and dry conditions.
Aircraft from the U.S. Forest Service and the Florida Forest Service were used to help fight a massive wildfire on April 9 in Hernando Beach. Lightning most likely ignited a fire that fanned into flames aided by windy and dry conditions.
Published Apr. 18, 2017

Florida's drought has become so dire that the Southwest Florida Water Management District is about to alert homeowners to watch for watering restrictions.

The board, also known as Swiftmud, is expected next week to declare a phase one water order. That means it will alert the residents of the 16 counties it oversees that they should get ready to scale back their water use.

In the Tampa Bay area, a drought such as this one used to mean pumping more water from the aquifer to replace the lack of rain. The result would be dried up lakes and wetlands, sometimes causing permanent damage.

No more, though. Now that Tampa Bay Water has built a desalination plant and a 15 billion gallon reservoir, the region can handle a drought without damaging the environment, according to chief technical officer Alison Adams.

Having those facilities "does impact how we can manage our way through a drought now," Adams said. "We can continue meeting the demand for water and not have the kind of environmental damage we had."

Those controversial and, at times, trouble-prone facilities give the Tampa Bay region an advantage over most of Florida in responding to the prolonged drought and resulting wildfires. Only the Peace River Water Supply Authority, which supplies water to Sarasota, Manatee, DeSoto and Charlotte counties, is similarly equipped for a drought.

This year's dry season across Florida ranks as one of the driest on record, according to state climatologist David Zierden. So far at least 126,000 acres have been scorched by wildfires, meaning the state has already reached the five-year average of acreage burned for an entire year.

Gov. Rick Scott declared a statewide emergency last week while firefighters battled brush fires in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties that threatened homes and blocked traffic.

"It's fairly likely we're going to get drier before there is relief from this," Zierden said.

Adams predicted that, given how dry the region has become over the winter, Tampa Bay's rivers and lakes are unlikely to return to normal until well after the summer rainy season begins, perhaps not until mid July.

Swiftmud already limits lawn watering to twice a week as part of its year-round conservation measures. Its phase one water order, if approved next week, will officially forbid "wasteful and unnecessary" water use, meaning "allowing water to be dispersed without any practical purpose." If the board later proceeds to phase two, that will cut lawn watering to once a week.

Tampa Bay Water is the first, and still only, regional government agency of its kind in the bay area, uniting governments in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. It is the state's largest wholesale utility, built the biggest desal plant in the nation and the largest reservoir in Florida just for times like this.

The utility's predecessor, the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, was mired in lawsuits because it drew too much water from underground, drying up lakes, swamps and private wells.

Tampa Bay Water was formed in 1998 to end those legal battles. The agency's goal was to provide a drought-proof source of water that did not require overpumping the aquifer.

"We are definitely better off" than back in those days, said Honey Rand, author of the book Water Wars, the definitive account of the 1980s-era legal battles over Tampa Bay's water supply. During droughts back then, she said, "we would just pump harder on everything" causing serious damage throughout the region.

Since December the desal plant has been pumping from 15 million to 18 million gallons of water a day to slake the region's thirst in a time of little rainfall, Adams said. Meanwhile the agency has already taken about 5 billion gallons of water from its reservoir, she said, leaving it with 10 billion gallons to get through the next few months.

Tampa Bay Water stumbled repeatedly in building its desal plant and reservoir. The $158 million desal plant opened five years late and cost $40 million more than expected. After it opened in 2003, it shut down for an expensive series of repairs that took until January 2008 to complete. Several contractors on the project went bankrupt and the utility became embroiled in more than one lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the company it hired to design the $140 million reservoir project had never worked on a project like it. The job of overseeing the company's work was assigned to a utility employee who wasn't a licensed engineer.

Within months after the reservoir opened in 2005 to store water skimmed from the Alafia River, Hillsborough River and Tampa Bypass Canal, cracks developed in the earthen embankment surrounding it. The utility spent $122 million to fix it and sued its engineer but lost, and so it had to pay another $21 million in legal fees.

But now, Tampa Bay Water said, the desal plant and reservoir are all functioning.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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