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Salt water intrusion of Port Richey wells could cost residents for years to come

PORT RICHEY — Residents' complaints over brown water have dried up, but dealing with the problem has been costly.

Last month, City Manager Tom O'Neill ordered four of the city's seven wells shut down amid an avalanche of complaints about tap water that looked like "iced tea." Tests showed three of the wells had elevated levels of iron and chloride due to saltwater intrusion, which O'Neill said he believes caused the brown water breakout.

The wells are now back on line, but O'Neill has drastically cut back their production and is filling the gap by drawing thousands of gallons a day from a connection with New Port Richey's water system. That has cost Port Richey between $50,000 and $60,000 over the past month, O'Neill said.

Port Richey never has produced enough water to meet the 800,000-gallon-a-day demand of its residents. In the past, the city purchased 10 to 20 percent of its water from New Port Richey. Since the brown water complaints came in, the city has bought about 33 percent of its water from New Port Richey.

That added cost has been the driving factor in putting Port Richey $100,000 over its budgeted amount for water purchases this year.

O'Neill said the increased costs are necessary to ensure clean drinking water. He also said some of the expenses will be offset by savings on water treatment costs not done while the wells were shut down and are now being operated at a diminished capacity.

"What we've done has improved the quality of the water in the city considerably," O'Neill said. "There have been some costs, but my job is to ensure that our residents can safely drink, bathe and cook with our water."

The increased costs may be a reality for Port Richey, as the salt water intrusion in the wells is not likely to improve. Last month, the city hired an engineer for a $9,800 study to look at the city's water operation. That review will be completed within in the next two weeks.

O'Neill said the most-needed part of the report will be advice on how much the three troubled wells can produce without seeing a spike in chloride and iron levels.

City Council member Terry Rowe said he wants to see a full report on the city's water issues as soon as possible.

"We are bleeding money," Rowe said at a recent City Council meeting.

With it likely that the city will have to buy more water from New Port Richey for the foreseeable future, O'Neill said a water rate increase will be needed. For months, the City Council has been debating a report by a consultant proposing a new rate structure. The study by Burton & Associates called for an overall increase of 3.5 percent each year over the next five years.

"It's critical that we get a new rate structure in place," O'Neill said.