MAXWELL:  The complete water picture

6/21/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Desalination is a water supply option for Tampa Bay. A recent Times editorial gives the impression that the West Coast Regional Authority has been fast-tracking water projects whose effects are unknown. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let me set the record straight.

Sea water desalination has been studied by the authority and others in the Tampa Bay Region for some 20 years. The process leading to the current proposals is in its third year. To meet projected demand for drinking water, the region must develop a minimum of 85-million gallons per day of new water by the year 2007 and, in fact, is contractually obligated to do so under the terms of the governance agreement.

Water supplies are not brought on line overnight; years of planning and study have preceded the authority’s approval of the regional Master Water Plan. Contrary to what was implied by the editorial, the plan does include development of existing sources of water (such as ground water), along with new alternative sources. The fact is that greater reliance on ground water is not environmentally prudent, if it is even possible. Alternative sources, including some that are drought-resistant, are necessary if the region is to have enough water for its future. There is no other choice.

Sea water desalination is not a new technology; its effects are physical and can be modeled. The effects of sea water desalination on Tampa Bay are being studied, funded by the authority and others. Reliable, scientifically accepted models are showing that normal, seasonal variations in the bay’s salinity are greater than the potential effects of sea water desalination. Further studies now underway focus on identifying a more refined level of local effects on the bay and the gulf.

Capital costs for a sea water desalination plant are comparable to or lower than capital costs for most alternative source water projects. A KPMG Peat Marwick analysis shows that, in the worst case, the consumer’s water costs could increase 1 percent per year over the next 12 years. Actually, sea water desalination plants are significantly less expensive to build than they are to operate, which is why it is possible for the region’s water management district to pay a significant portion of the capital cost. A simple examination of the costs of various capital projects would show that the district has not “stacked the decks” in favor of desalination, as was stated in the editorial.

The authority has always supported conservation, and Tampa Bay residents have made significant strides in this area. As the region’s water wholesaler, the authority provides conservation planning assistance to its member governments, which implement the actual conservation programs. Conservation is both necessary and desirable, but even a cursory look at the region’s water demand data would clearly show that conservation alone, or with existing water sources, will not provide the necessary amount of water.

Public involvement and input are key components of the sea water desalination evaluation _ and all Master Water Plan projects. The authority has held five well-publicized public meetings on sea water desalination since January. The board took public input on desalination at its May meeting. Many community presentations have been made to inform the community about desalination and to help the authority understand community concerns. Public input has played a significant role in shaping Master Water Plan projects, such as the Tampa Bypass Canal Water Supply Project and the Brandon Urban Dispersed Wells project, and is playing a key role in desalination as well.

The Times editorial failed to take into account the diverse supplies of water being considered under the Master Water Plan _ supplies required to meet well field cutbacks, protect the environment, meet growth demands and provide for the region’s economic future. It disregarded the years of planning and study that preceded the plan, and the bidding process for sea water desalination that has been described as “the most technically and commercially excellent bidding format in the history of desalting.” The Times picture could lead the public to think the requirements for well field reduction and new supply development could be met from conservation, ground water and surface water alone. Sea water desalination, along with other water supply options, must all be fairly considered.

The fact is, we need 85-million gallons per day of new water, at a minimum. Some of that water must come from drought-resistant sources. Only limited use can be made of ground water, due to environmental concerns. We have devoted years of study and planning to the Master Water Plan. If decisions are delayed, we simply won’t have enough water to meet our obligations. If we fail to met our commitment for new water and pumping cutbacks, will we then be criticized for not moving quickly enough?

Jerry Maxwell is general manager of the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority.