Five years and $40 million over budget, the largest desalination plant in North America is finally producing fresh water for the Tampa Bay Region.
To understand why a board of locally elected leaders would risk more than $100 million of taxpayer money on an expensive technology untried in the U.S., you have to appreciate the intensity of the water wars fought by governments in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties from the 1970s through the '90s.
Pinellas County and St. Petersburg were the first places in Florida to exhaust their groundwater supplies. Their response was to buy land in sparsely populated northwest Hillsborough and central Pasco counties and build well fields from which they pumped water and piped it back to Pinellas.
That worked until the rural counties began to grow. As Pinellas increased pumping to meet its own growth, residents who settled in the rural countryside near the well fields complained of dropping lake levels, sinkholes and dried-up wells. For years, Pinellas, St. Petersburg and the area's water agencies -- the Southwest Florida Water Management District (known as Swiftmud) and the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority -- insisted it was all just part of the hydrologic cycle and had nothing to do with groundwater pumping.
When water managers came to their senses and threatened to restrict pumping, Pinellas and St. Petersburg sued. The litigation dragged on for years. At one point, Pinellas even sued citizen activists whose wells had gone dry in Pasco. Over time, the lawyers alone cost taxpayers more than $10 million, "with not one new drop of water served to the public," observed former Swiftmud spokeswoman Honey Rand in her book "Water Wars."
Pinellas Commissioner Susan Latvala credits "divine intervention" for the eventual truce brokered by leaders including former Pinellas Commissioner Steve Seibert and former St. Pete Mayor David Fischer, who came into office about the same time. In 1998, officials in the three counties and St. Pete, Tampa and New Port Richey decided to stop competing for water resources and work together with Swiftmud to plan for new supplies and to conserve water.