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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Desalinization Plant Proposed in Florida

Air Date: Week of

The area around Tampa, Florida is running out of water. So authorities are turning to an unconventional solution: they want to build a seawater desalination plant on the edge of Tampa Bay. As Tanya Ott reports, critics of the plan say it substitutes one environmental problem for another.


TOOMEY: Florida may be surrounded by water, but the Sunshine State is in the midst of a serious drought. In the Tampa Bay region, massive development is turning the need for water into a full-blown crisis. So authorities there are turning to the ocean for a solution. Two other U.S. cities, Key West in Florida and Santa Barbara in California, once turned to the sea for drinking water. But the high cost of operating desalination plants quickly mothballed both facilities. But as Tanya Ott reports, plans for the Tampa Bay desalination plant are moving ahead despite the objections of some residents and scientists.

S. CLARK: It's there. You see the moving over there.

OTT: Pull up to Silbourne and Gilliame Clarke's sprawling Polynesian-style home near Florida's Central Gulf Coast, and you might feel like you've stepped into a Disney movie. A herd of deer grazes at the edge of the front yard. Further back, a red-shouldered hawk waits patiently in a tree for his turn to feast on the chicken livers the Clarkes set out each night.

G. CLARKE: Hawk, hawk, hawk! Come, birdie.

OTT: The couple envisioned retirement paradise when they bought this house a decade ago. But for the past five years it's been nothing but heartache.

S. CLARKE: You see all of these exposed roots? That is where the soil was originally, before this subsidence began.

OTT: You losing tree limbs or anything?

S. CLARKE: Tree limbs? Lose whole trees.

OTT: Really.

S. CLARKE: Come and I'll show you. It looks like pickup sticks over yonder.

OTT: The Clarke’s neighborhood borders one of the main underground aquifers that supplies drinking water to the Tampa Bay area 30 miles to the south. Every day, more than 27 million gallons of water are pumped out of these aquifers. After years of this, an area that was once covered with wetlands and lakes has become an arboreal graveyard. Useless, dry dirt drops away from the tree trunks here. Eventually, the trees tumble over, littering the landscape. Aside from the obvious environmental devastation, the situation has made houses in this neighborhood unsellable, and turned the Clarkes into water crusaders. Gilliame’s wrath is directed at her neighbors to the south in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater.

G. CLARKE: People who have moved in there feel that it is their right, given by God, to water their lawns 24 hours a day if they so choose. To wash their car every day of the week. And they are using potable water to do this.

OTT: For years the Clarkes and fellow activists have pushed water managers to do something. Those efforts finally paid off last year when regulators announced a new water plan that would cut back on aquifer pumping. The linchpin of the proposal is a seawater desalination plant to be built on the edge of Tampa Bay. If constructed, it would be the largest such facility in the western hemisphere. Sonny Vergara is Executive Director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. He says the process used to desalinate seawater is usually prohibitively expensive. But this proposed location would drastically reduce that cost. An existing power plant there already pulls in bay water to cool its borders. The desalination plant would siphon off some of this water for its own purpose.

VERGARA: What will be done for the seawater desalination facility that's being proposed is to extract from that 1.2 billion gallons about 45 million gallons per day. And sending that through a water treatment process.

OTT: The water would be pumped through a series of membranes that strip off the salt. The end result would satisfy ten percent of the region's freshwater needs. That amounts to 25 million gallons a day.

VERGARA: And from that 25 million, take the bad things that we don't want to consume, keep it in the 20 million remaining, and then put that 20 million back in the 1.2 billion gallon cooling stream.

OTT: Then that stream containing the 20 million gallons of salt-laden wastewater -- in fact, it's twice as salty as the sea -- would be discharged here --


OTT: -- into this small bay inlet neighboring several residential communities. J.B. Canterberry is a homeowner here who objects to the plant. He says it's a classic example of solving one environmental problem by creating another.

CANTERBERRY: Most of the fish that are hatched in Tampa Bay are hatched on the eastern shore because of the mangrove swamps. And what we're going to see is a build-up of salt, along this eastern shore and the areas where most of these fish are hatched.

OTT: Canterberry worries the increased salinity will cause sea life, including endangered manatees and turtles, to die off. There are other neighbors who worry that yet another industrial plant in their neighborhood will decrease property values. Home prices here soar into the million-dollar range. Regardless of their motivation, these residents have founded an organization called Save Our Bays and Canals, or SOBAC. The citizens group seems to know a bit about marketing its message.

(Music and a milling crowd)

MARZELLI: We were at Tropical Heat Wave, we were at Star Fest, we were at the Tomato Ruskin Festival, we're at the Good Community Fair.

OTT: SOBAC member Joe Marzelli is at a local seafood restaurant tonight hawking raffle tickets.

MARZELLI: The Florida Guides Association donated three six-hour guided fishing trips for four people on Tampa Bay, and Rooms to Go donated three mattress and box spring sets. So, it was kind of a tough combination, mattress and box spring sets and fishing trips. So I came up with the idea called "Sleeping With the Fishes."

(Restaurant music continues in the background)

OTT: So what do the scientists say about the potential problems from increased salinity? Aquatic ecologist Tony Janicki has been hired by the local water regulators as a consultant on the project. He says the amount of salt in the water entering the bay will be just a drop in the bucket, since it will be diluted with the power plant's discharge water.

JANICKI: Given the volumes of water that we're talking about, the dilution of that concentrate with its elevated salinity ends up with a net change in salinity of about point one parts per thousand at the end of the discharge canal. As a result, we are predicting that there will be no change in salinity in Tampa Bay as a result of the operations of this plant.

OTT: But other scientists question that conclusion. Researchers at the state-funded Tampa Bay Estuary Program have called for more study. Dr. Nick Ehringer agrees. He's a biologist at an area community college and has made a career out of studying the ecology of Tampa Bay. Using a small-scale model in his lab, Dr. Ehringer studied the path of the saltwater discharge. He suspects that the brine will collect at the bottom of the bay, threatening many species of young life there. Blue crab, red fish, and snook all use the sea grasses in the bay as a hideout from predators. Dr. Ehringer says the increased salinity would leach water from the tissues of these young creatures.

EHRINGER: It's going to be an increased salinity above normal. In fact, in some places it's going to be way above normal. And that increase in salinity is simply too much for those organisms. They're too fragile at that young age to survive.

OTT: While both sides in the salinity debate argue over things like dilution levels and tidal flush rates, all predictions both dire and benign are hypothetical. That's because there's never been a seawater desalination plant of this size discharging into bay water. Driven by its desperate need for new water sources, the Tampa region has plans for other nonconventional projects. They call for capturing surface water and diverting treated sewage water. Scientists say diverting this fresh water from the bay might compound the effect of the brine, a kind of one-two punch for the bay and its creatures. Water regulators have funded a study to look at this very issue. Florida's Department of Environmental Protection will take those findings into account as it decides whether to permit the desalination plant. That ruling is expected later this year. For Living on Earth, I'm Tanya Ott in Tampa, Florida.



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