October 23, 2014

Desalination

Salty Solution?

Five years and $40 million over budget, the largest desalination plant in North America is finally producing fresh water for the Tampa Bay Region.

Cynthia Barnett | 5/1/2007
" This is extraordinarily complex compared to other remedies such as reservoirs. "

Under the microscope

Housed in a nondescript complex of gray concrete buildings dwarfed by the Tampa Electric power plant and its smokestacks next door, Tampa Bay's saltwater desalination plant in March began to do what it is supposed to do. The American Water/Acciona Agua team had cranked up all seven of the plant's enormous reverse-osmosis "trains," banks of thousands of membranes that at full power sound like an airplane engine. For weeks, the plant has run at about 15 million gallons a day; the water has met all Safe Drinking Water Act Requirements. The all-crucial acceptance tests required in the contract should begin soon.

Estimated cost for the water, once promised at $1.71 per 1,000 gallons, has climbed to $3.19. That will fall to $2.88 when Swiftmud kicks in its $85 million -- which won't happen until district officials are sure the plant is running as it should.

Legal fees have mounted, too, to nearly $7 million -- a result of Tampa Bay Water's lawsuits against myriad insurance companies and engineering firms. At its April meeting, the board was to consider a settlement agreement in the consolidated suits. In years' worth of depositions and legal filings, Poseidon blamed exotic Asian green mussels and idiosyncrasies associated with the Tampa Electric site. Tampa Bay Water officials blamed the company for not understanding the complexity of the Bay and for building the original plant on the cheap.

The fallout extends to hopes that the Tampa plant would prove desal's promise. A decade ago, the plant was expected to jump-start a wave of ocean desal in America, particularly in the Sun Belt, where population growth and water scarcity have governments scurrying to build alternative water supplies. Instead, its troubles have likely delayed by five to 10 years what many predict will be an inevitable turn
toward desalination in America.

Herd, the operations manager whose youthful face belies his 20 years with Tampa Bay Water and its forerunner, is in demand around the country as other states, particularly Texas and California, look to learn from Tampa Bay's mistakes. "It's not just a national interest -- it's a worldwide viewing under a microscope," he says. "I can't imagine that there's been another public works project in our generation that's drawn this much interest."

The lessons Herd offers? "Require the contractor to have desalination experience," he says, without a touch of irony. Others, such as Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who serves on the water board today, warn against desal. "This is extraordinarily complex compared to other remedies such as reservoirs," Iorio says. "I would not recommend that another jurisdiction go down this road unless they have thoroughly exhausted all other remedies."

Indeed, Tampa Bay Water's experience provides a big lesson for other governments in Florida facing water wars like those that plagued Tampa Bay: Collaboration on conservation and regional water supply planning can lessen the need for expensive, high-tech solutions to water woes. As the plant's troubles dragged on, the utility built a 15-billion gallon reservoir and a 66-million-gallon-a-day surface water treatment plant and implemented an aggressive conservation component.

Tampa Bay Water managed, in fact, to reduce overall groundwater pumping in the region from 192 million to 121 million gallons a day despite population growth -- and without one drop of the desalinated water that officials once insisted they needed to meet that goal.

Tags: Southwest, Energy & Utilities

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