Desalination Creates More Problems than Solutions in Tampa

Other cities considering desal would be wise to look at what happened in Tampa.

If Aesop ever wrote a fable about water, he would surely write a story about the Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Mexico and its continuing struggle to resolve its water crisis.

The metro Tampa Bay area, which includes the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, among others, continues growing at an accelerating pace. Estimates say 4 million residents will be living in the area within the next 20 years.  Today, 2.8 million straws in the area continue consuming precious water, water that seems to be running out.

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the regional water authorities in the area prepared for just this ominous scenario by buying new well fields in neighboring counties.  Little did they know that this would instigate what is now popularly known as the ‘Tampa Water Wars.'

During these water clashes, lawsuits were more common than the Florida sunshine.   The water management officials, elected leaders, and even ordinary citizens filed suit against each other after the new wells in Pasco and Hillsborough County caused serious problems.  Aquifers began running desperately low.   Wetlands disappeared.  Lakes dried up.  So bad were the circumstances that even the earth retaliated, opening up sinkholes that sucked down entire homes.

Finally, in 1998, after years of litigation, it seemed the worst was over.  Six local commissions decided to establish a new Tampa water authority that would coordinate the area's water efforts.

Could the magical creatures in Aesop's story ever relay what happened next to Tampa Bay Water, the freshly minted authority that would provide for the water aspirations of millions?   Well, soon enough, these new water officials were visited by strange but not uncommon creatures too, beings from private industries who touted a novel idea that would save Tampa Bay: ocean desalination.
In its first major decision, Tampa Bay Water decided in 1999 to allow several private firms to build, own and operate a 25-million-gallon-per-day plant that would supply up to 15% of the area's water needs.   So far, it has been a disastrous venture.

The plant went online in 2008 – six years later than scheduled and $40 million over budget.  It has rarely run at full capacity to this day.  In fact, Tampa Bay took ownership of the plant after two of the firms in charge of completing the plant went bankrupt.  In March of 2009, the desalination plant, now operated by a subsidiary of the German multinational RWE, had to be shut down again after yet another malfunction.

But that isn't all.

Tampa Bay area residents, in the midst of a major five-year drought, recently found out that Tampa Bay Water's other major project, the four year old C.W. Bill Young Reservoir – designed specifically to safeguard for droughts – has major cracks that may take two years to fix and cost over $125 million to repair.

Avoid a remedy that is worse than the disease, Aesop once wrote.   Citizens all over Florida should be looking at the wasted money, time, and effort that the Tampa area has invested and press local officials to seek well-thought-out solutions that will serve the public good. 

Aggressive conservation measures like those proposed by the state's Water Conservation Initiative or Tampa Bay's proposed water reclamation project would be a step in the right direction.   But ill-conceived measures like the proposed five-county "bigger-is-better" desalination plant off the Atlantic coast should be reconsidered before it's too late.

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