Five years and $40 million over budget, the largest desalination plant in North America is finally producing fresh water for the Tampa Bay Region.
Holed up in Key West in 1861, the 500 Union soldiers who garrisoned Fort Taylor had a problem: A lack of fresh water. But from Europe came word of a new technology, and the Army decided to test something never before tried in the U.S. -- distilling fresh water from the sea. The Army ordered a "Marine Aerated Fresh Water Apparatus" from England and had the device shipped across the
Atlantic Ocean to New York, then down to the Keys. Fueled by wood and coal, the apparatus sucked in salt water, heated it in a giant boiler and sent it into towering pipes, where it evaporated and condensed, leaving behind salt and 7,000 gallons of fresh water a day.
The soldiers, however, found the machine so unwieldy that it ultimately proved easier to ship fresh water down from Tampa in barges, which is what Keys inhabitants did for much of the rest of the century.
Over time, cost became the biggest barrier to what's now called desalination -- the enormous amount of energy it required made it practical mostly for oil-rich, water-poor nations in the Middle East. But as desal technology evolved, Florida remained at the cutting edge. In the 1950s, University of Florida chemist Charles Reid set up a primitive "reverse-osmosis" membrane system that would become the basis for modern desalination technology. Since the early '80s, Florida communities have built more desal plants than any other state in the nation. Most are small plants that desalinate brackish water.
Then, in 1999, a regional water agency called Tampa Bay Water took the most ambitious step since the Union Army's transoceanic order: It decided to build the biggest seawater desalination plant in North America -- one that was supposed to deliver the cheapest desalinated water in the world. "We were trying to do something that no one in the Western Hemisphere had done on this scale," says Jerry Maxwell, general manager at Tampa Bay Water.
And, just as with the Aerated Fresh Water Apparatus of a century earlier, "it didn't work the way anyone wanted it to," Maxwell says.