Five years and $40 million over budget, the largest desalination plant in North America is finally producing fresh water for the Tampa Bay Region.
The officials agreed to create a regional agency, Tampa Bay Water, to own and operate the region's water works. The agency, which charges its six member governments a uniform rate, is the largest water wholesaler in the Southeast, supplying 2.5 million people. As part of the deal, Swiftmud agreed to help the agency fund new supply as long as it met goals for weaning the region off groundwater, tapering from 192 million permitted gallons a day in 1998 to 90 million gallons by 2008.
Getting to desal
For years, Mark Farrell, an engineer who rose through Swiftmud's ranks during the water wars, had the task of responding to letters from retired Navy personnel in Tampa Bay and others who had seen desalination plants in the Mediterranean and Middle East and suggested the technology could help Tampa Bay.
By 1994, his pat response -- that cost and environmental concerns made desal impractical for Florida -- no longer made sense. Experience in the Middle East had shown that one way to hold down costs is to build desal plants next to coastal power plants, which already suck up and filter millions of gallons of seawater each day -- and which offer inexpensive electricity. Scientists at Florida Power balked at Farrell's request for a pilot desal project, but the late Roy Harrell, a St. Petersburg lawyer and longtime Swiftmud board member who helped end the water wars, made a personal appeal to Jack Critchfield, CEO of Florida Power's parent company.
Seeing promise and potential profit in desal, Critchfield paved the way for a research project, which focused on dealing with the ultra-salty concentrate that's a byproduct of desalination. The research was successful, and the water management district began pushing for desal as a "drought-proof" piece of the region's Master Water Plan. The district promised Tampa Bay Water $183 million from ad valorem taxes to help fund new water-supply infrastructure, including $85 million upon completion of a desal plant.
Maxwell, a longtime local government administrator recruited to Tampa from Tallahassee in 1995 to lead what would become Tampa Bay Water, was initially skeptical.
"If we're going to try to right a perceived wrong of 40 years of uncurtailed groundwater consumption," he says, "it wouldn't be sustainable to leap to something that would cause a greater problem."