State of the Planet

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Tampa Bay Water has Bleak Outlook

Tampa Bay is probably most known in the water community for having one of the largest desalinization plants in the nation, and is looked upon by many as the model to see if desal is a feasible alternative for the future. So far, the plant has been full of issues, such as costing $40 million more than initially projected, running at lower capacity than needed and projected, and constantly needing parts replaced and having to close. With the current conditions in water scarcity that Tampa is experiencing, the desalination plant is going to be relied on more than ever.

An Image from of the reservoir closer to full capacity
An Image from of the reservoir closer to full capacity

In mid March, Tampa reached crisis water levels due to drought conditions in Florida.  However, cracks appeared in the walls of the reservoir, and officials drained the water level down in order to investigate the cause, even though the cracks were not affecting the stability. The investigation started in a time where water was plenty, but now the water has been pumped so much that there is only about 130 million gallons left in the reservoir, and this is not enough water to produce enough hydraulic pressure to make the water usable. The reservoir cannot be refilled at this time because there is not enough surface water in the rivers that were initially used. The rainy season does not start until June or July, so until then, Tampa must start to rely more heavily on ground water and the desalination plant to supply the water needs for the users.

Less than a week after this occurred, the Tampa Bay desalination plant encountered yet another setback in its attempt at running at full capacity. When it was constructed, it was promised to run at 25 million gallons per day capacity; however, it dropped as low at 14 million gallons per day, and in the next few months, the highest projected output is 19 million gallons per day. The issue that is causing this setback is a leaking intake pipe and an issue with a critical electrical component. The electrical component is on order, but these parts are not readily available and take time to make, test, and ship. Until the part ships, the plant cannot go above the 19 million gallons per day maximum. As a result, Tampa Bay is pumping 100 million to 150 million gallons per day from the aquifer, which is significantly above the level that is approved by SWFWMD for environmentally safe withdrawals from the aquifer.

In order to deal with the rising issue of water scarcity, Tampa Bay is creating extremely stringent water restrictions. A typical homeowner uses approximately 90,000 gallons of water a year. However, many wealthy people in the area, including Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Tampa Bay Buccaneers co-chairman Bryan Glazer, use more than 1 million gallons in the span of a year. Tampa bay official are looking at possibly charging these users an extra fee during the drought season in order to try to make money and cut water usage. Officials are also exploring the possibility of requiring all customers near the reclaimed water line to being using it, something that many customers have rejected voluntarily.

All that is certain is that something must be done, and soon, in order to preserve the aquifer and provide the citizens of Tampa bay with adequate water resources. The rains won’t be coming for another two months, and something must happen before then to ensure that water resources will remain potable and in high enough quantities to meet the needs of Tampa Bay Water users.

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Dan Stellar
14 years ago

This is an interesting article, and plainly points out some of the problems with large infrastructure/technology solutions. While desal will likely play an important part in meeting future needs for water, as this article shows, it can’t be the only solution. Regarding energy, it’s often said that the cleanest and cheapest unit of energy is the one that isn’t built. There’s still a lot that can be done with efficiency. The same goes for water. Instead of building huge and ineffective desal plants, we should be pursuing policies that promote efficient water use, particularly in the agricultural sector. Gains made in this area could offset the need for countless desal plants.

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