Updated 11 months ago
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.
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.
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."
As it turned out, the problems that dogged the plant were not environmental. So much went wrong that almost every aspect of the process can be second-guessed, beginning with the fact that neither the water management district nor Tampa Bay Water had any experience with desalination and declined to hire anyone who did.
And while the project had more than its share of bad luck, critics say Tampa Bay Water set itself up for misfortune right from the start by letting price, environmental and legal issues take precedence over bidders' qualifications, financials and ability to deliver.
In 1997, with the water-management district's blessings and funding, Tampa Bay Water's board voted to issue a request for proposals for what would be by far the largest desalination plant in North America, producing 25 million gallons of fresh water a day.
Tampa Bay Water structured the request so that the winning bidder would design, build, own and operate the plant. The project required at least a 10% investment by the developer. Requiring that ownership stake was supposed to provide additional incentive to the developer to succeed, and also to minimize taxpayers' risk. The private contractor would be paid only if the plant worked.
Tampa Bay Water received just four bids -- a sign of how little experience existed a decade ago for building a major desal plant, at least in the U.S. regulatory environment. And the bids came in looking so different that they were impossible to compare: Between 1997 and 1998, Tampa Bay Water had to reissue its request for proposals a second and then a third time.
Tampa Bay Saltwater Desalination Plant
Additional costs since Tampa Bay Water bought the facility in 2002
Promised price of water
Estimate for when -- and if -- the Southwest Florida Water Management District kicks in its $85-million subsidy for an up-and-running desalination plant: $2.88 per 1,000 gallons
Source: Tampa Bay Water
One early favorite was a team made up of Ionics Inc. and Progress Energy Corp. Ionics had global desal experience, and the team proposed to locate the plant at Progress Energy's Anclote River facility in Pasco County, where the water-management district had done its pilot tests a few years before.
But in each successive round of proposals, a joint venture between engineering giant Stone & Webster and Poseidon Resources Corp., neither of which had built a major desal plant, came in with lower and lower bids. Tampa Bay Water executives were clearly focused on price. In February 1999, they issued a press release, picked up around the globe, boasting that the four competing teams "have shattered price barriers for desalination plants worldwide."
"With one proposal's first-year costs as low as $1.71 per thousand gallons," Maxwell said in the release, "our Tampa Bay desalination facility will have the attention of other coastal communities and states as well as many foreign governments."
Few, however, believed anyone could desalinate 1,000 gallons of seawater for $1.71. "Everyone in the industry was saying, 'there's no way,' " remembers Farrell, who'd left the water management district and worked for one of the competing teams, a consortium of U.S. Water and E.I. duPont de Nemours. "All the teams saw that there was no money to be made on this project -- we were doing it for the marketing position, the cachet of being first and hopefully to get into other plants. But $1.71 was simply not do-able."
Believing that the design-build-own contract would insulate it from risk, Tampa Bay Water's board chose the Poseidon/Stone & Webster proposal in April 1999. The plant would be sited at Tampa Electric Co.'s Big Bend Power Station at Apollo Beach in southern Hillsborough County.
Ken Herd, Tampa Bay Water's director of operations, says there was no way to anticipate what happened next: In May 2000, barely a year after it and Poseidon won the bid, Boston-based Stone & Webster, one of the world's largest and most respected engineering firms, declared bankruptcy. In December 2000, Poseidon hired New Jersey-based energy giant Covanta (which also had no desal experience) to take over construction. A year later, Covanta filed for bankruptcy after the energy crisis in California crippled its cash flow.
What some saw as bad luck or bad choices by Maxwell and Tampa Bay Water, Maxwell viewed as mismanagement by Poseidon. Now 63, with close-cropped white hair and a goatee to match, Maxwell has an easygoing management style that masks a determination to have things his way. Things wouldn't have gone so badly, he believed, if he'd had more control over the process.
Indeed, if there's one thing Maxwell didn't like about the contract, it was that it left too much control in the hands of the private contractor. In the wake of the bankruptcies in spring 2002, Maxwell persuaded Tampa Bay Water's board to buy the plant from Poseidon -- even though Poseidon insisted it was on track to complete it.
That decision left Maxwell in for heavy pummeling. Critics such as state Sen. Ronda Storms, a former board member and Hillsborough County commissioner who opposed buying the half-finished plant, say the move was about ego and control and put ratepayers at enormous risk. After the purchase, ratepayers -- not Poseidon -- were on the hook for cost overruns and other problems. And while it got rid of the solvent company, Tampa Bay Water stuck with the bankrupt company, Covanta, to finish the plant.
The board's position was that Tampa Bay Water's access to cheaper financing than the private companies would save taxpayers millions in bond fees as the plant was completed. Most important, the agency was ultimately responsible for making sure the region got the fresh water it needed. Poseidon had already jumped the most significant hurdle, environmental permitting. Maxwell and the board didn't expect that it would be hard to finish the plant.
On a spring day in 2003, the plant produced its first 3 million gallons of fresh water. Officials toasted each other with plastic cups. But their celebration was premature. The plant's key technology -- 10,000 reverse-osmosis membranes -- began to clog after a few weeks. The membranes, which cost $500 apiece, are supposed to last between five and seven years.
Under the original contract, Poseidon would have been responsible for fixing the membranes. Instead, the taxpayers were on the hook. Tampa Bay Water ultimately hired highly regarded American Water Pridesa (since acquired by Spain's Acciona Agua), which spent four years and $32 million on remediation.
Today, the plant looks very different from four years ago, when officials raised their plastic cups to toast what proved to be a misfire. Andy Shea, North American director for Acciona Agua, who was once with Poseidon, hints that the current firms won't make money on the plant either but are motivated by a sense of urgency in the global industry to get this plant online. "We're there to restore the luster originally envisioned for the Tampa Bay Saltwater Desalination Plant," Shea says.
|" This is extraordinarily complex compared to other remedies such as reservoirs. "
-- Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio
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.
The Desal State
Marco Island on the southwest Florida coast, just six miles long and four miles wide, bustles with 40,000 residents and visitors during the winter. A reverse-osmosis plant provides the island's residents with 6 million gallons a day -- the water it filters is among the highest salinity water in the United States that ends up as tap water.
Among the 250 smaller-scale desal plants that filter and purify water around the nation, Florida has more than any other state, with 120 plants along both coasts. Texas has 38, and California, 33. Both of those states have significant plans for seawater desalination but are closely watching Tampa Bay's plant, the first large-scale desal plant in North America and the first to filter seawater.
Most of the Florida plants rely on reverse-osmosis filtration through membranes to remove salts, calcium and other substances from brackish water. They don't have to pretreat the brackish water as extensively as facilities that filter seawater -- one source of technical troubles that plagued the Tampa plant.
A couple of the largest include a 20-million-gallon-a-day plant in Collier County and an 18-mgd plant in Hollywood. A 40-mgd nanofiltration plant -- similar to reverse osmosis but removing slightly fewer ions -- recently went into service in Boca Raton and is the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
In 1995, Sarasota County built a desal plant with a technology called electrodialysis reversal (EDR) that uses electricity to separate salt and other minerals. The largest EDR plant in the world, the Sarasota facility was designed to produce 20 million gallons a day.
"Perhaps you don't hear about these plants," says Steve Duranceau, an Orlando-based engineer who's helped design several of the Florida plants, "because they work so well."
Tampa "has really delayed seawater desalination projects in this country," he says, "but people have to realize that communities have been successfully desalting brackish water on the west and east coasts of Florida for 20 years."
Business: The Desalters
In 2005, South Korea engineering powerhouse Doosan built the Fujairah, one of the largest desalination plants in the world, in the United Arab Emirates. Last year, when Doosan decided to set up research and development subsidiaries on both sides of the globe to strengthen its desal capacity -- the company says it controls 40% of the worldwide market -- it chose Dubai and Tampa.
Doosan Hydro Technology is one of the first companies to make Florida a strategic base for tapping the seawater desalination market in the Sun Belt -- a market expected to boom when Tampa Bay's plant becomes fully operational. Florida, Texas and California all are considering major seawater desal efforts as an alternative source of fresh water to supply population growth.
Another company to watch is Boca Raton-based Water Standard Co., which has spent the past six years developing a Seawater Desalination Vessel and is heavily promoting its concept of ship-based mass desalination with the help of Tampa-based engineering firm PBS&J. Last fall, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District in California voted to study the vessel as a possible source of fresh water for the region.