Tampa looks to sea for fresh water

As development outruns region's resources, cost of desalination is falling


LAND O'LAKES, Fla. -- There might be water, water everywhere, but as remarkable as it might seem in Tampa Bay, there is not enough to drink.

Blessed by abundant rainfall, the region has for decades drawn all its water from a network of inland wells. But spreading development, stretching north all the way to Land O'Lakes, has finally overrun what those ground-water well fields can safely produce.

The verdant landscape here, 30 miles north of downtown Tampa, is dotted with small lakes. But in its search for new sources of water, Tampa Bay is looking in another direction.

To help meet the needs of the area's 2.3 million residents, it plans to desalt seawater.

Never before has a large U.S. urban area bet so heavily on seawater desalination for fresh water. If approved by state environmental officials, a plant to be built on the shores of Tampa Bay would become the largest desalination plant this side of Saudi Arabia by the end of 2002.

While other U.S. coastal communities are bracing for water crises, the effort by the Tampa Bay Water Authority might serve as a vital test.

Rejected for years as too expensive, desalination is winning converts as its price begins to drop, but skeptics remain. In Tampa Bay, some fear that the desalination plant could cause environmental damage.

"How we resolve the problem in Tampa Bay could very well set the mold, the blueprint for other parts of the country," said E. D. Vergara, executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the regulatory agency that was the driving force in persuading Tampa Bay to change course.

The outline of Tampa Bay's problem can be seen in three areas.

One is demographic, after 50 years that have seen a fivefold population increase in the Tampa Bay area, which includes the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, and the counties of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco.

The second is environmental -- depleted aquifers, dry wetlands and fallen trees, all casualties of pumping water from the ground to supply rapidly growing communities, often carried out with little heed for the consequences.

And the third is a clock that began to tick in 1995, when the Tampa Bay Water Authority submitted to years of pressure from state regulators and agreed to cut back sharply on pumping ground water and to look elsewhere for new water sources.

In its new plan for the decade ahead, Tampa Bay envisions desalted seawater providing about 10 percent of the region's freshwater needs.

Water from other newly developed sources, rivers and a new reservoir, would account for about 25 percent of the need, with the balance to be made up by highly restricted flows from ground-water well fields.

A Tampa Bay water timetable shows that without the 25 million gallons of fresh water a day that the new plant is supposed to produce, the area would face a major water shortage by early 2003.

"We are where we are because of the travesty of development in Florida," said Jerry L. Maxwell, who as general manager of Tampa Bay Water has become a leading advocate of the desalination plan.

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