Troubled desal plant on symposium agenda

09/10/07 Seán Kinane
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The 22nd annual WateReuse Symposium is taking place this week at the Marriott Waterside in downtown Tampa.

One of the panel discussions dealt with the Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Plant. This largest seawater desalination facility in North America has been through its share of problems and is still not operating at full capacity.

The original developer, Stone & Webster, was hired in 1999 to complete the project by the end of 2002. But Covanta Energy took over in 2000 when Stone & Webster declared bankruptcy.

Covanta filed for bankruptcy in 2002, but created a subsidiary to continue building the desal plant. That subsidiary went bankrupt following failed tests in 2003 and was paid $4.4-million by Tampa Bay Water to be released from the project the following year.

Also in 2004, the coalition of American Water-Pridesa was hired for $29-million by Tampa Bay Water to remediate the desalination plant.

Ken Herd, director of operations and facilities with Tampa Bay Water, described the status of the desal plant today.

“Well the project currently is in the remediation phase. We have started producing water again from the desal plant back in March of this year. We started the conditioning process. And we since then have produced about 1.7 billion gallons of quality drinking water from the facility. We still have some testing that has to be done. The contractor is making some slight modifications to the pretreatment process. And we expect that very soon, no later than the end of this year, we’ll have the plant up and running at capacity.”

Herd said that despite the previous shutdowns, he is optimistic that major problems are in the past.

“Well, I think with any project, there is a commissioning process and things are going to happen that you’re not going to expect. But we expect to run this plant on a sustained basis. We’re currently in a drought, so now is the time when it’s nice to have that desalinated seawater there as an opportunity for us to meet our customer needs without relying too heavily on groundwater.

"But we believe that this project will be a successful project and once we get through the testing phases it’s going to be around for generations to come.”

Andy Shea is the U.S.A. development director for Acciona Agua, the company that succeeded Pridesa America Corp. in its partnership with American Water to remediate the desalination plant.

“Right now we’ve been running between 10 to 20 million gallons a day. We’re waiting to go up to 25 million gallons a day. We’re waiting for final certification of one modification on our pretreatment diatomaceous earth system.”

Asked if there is a timetable, Shea said: “We’re waiting to hear back from the local office of the Florida DEP (Department of Environmental Protection). They’re extremely busy, they’re extremely hardworking folks there, we anticipate hearing back from them in the next couple of weeks here and then bringing the facility fully online for our run-in and acceptance test.”

Shea described the modifications that are being made to bring the desal plant to full capacity.

“As you know, there’s a lot of stuff in the water that needs to be removed before they go to the reverse osmosis membranes, so we’ve done extensive modification of the pretreatment system and the overall robustness of the plant.”

In order for the plant to be certified as fully remediated it has to go through an acceptance test in which it will run for two straight weeks at an average performance of 25 million gallons per day and a maximum capacity of 28.75 million gallons per day.

“We’re anticipating going through the run-in period before the before the middle of October and anticipate going into full acceptance testing shortly thereafter. … We’re looking for this to be a fully operating plant this year and look forward to serving the greater Tampa Bay community.”

But Denise Layne is not convinced about the desalination plant’s progress. Layne is the executive director of the Coalition 4 Responsible Growth. She authored an op-ed piece in today’s Tampa Tribune calling for an independent review of Tampa Bay Water by the Auditor General of Florida because of recurring problems to create reliable alternative sources of water.

“I know that we’ve been promised alternative water sources and this was like the number one top priority 10 years ago. We’ve been waiting for it to come online ever since. Still it’s not online and we need to have that 25 million gallons per day that that desal plant is supposed to produce.”

Layne is concerned whether the desalination plant will get up to its full capacity.

“A few months ago there was what we called the Desal Settlement agreement. And it was discussed at that point that desal plant was sold to us to generate 25 million gallons a day, if not more at some point in the future. And about a year ago all of a sudden Tampa Bay Water realized it can’t run that plant at that 25 million for a very long period of time or it is very high maintenance costs. So they’ve gotten an agreement that pretty much levels it off at 15 million gallons a day.

"So we’re already getting screwed out of 10 million gallons a day of water just because of the shenanigans that have been played.” Layne said.

Layne cautioned that the lack of alternative water sources, such as desalinated seawater, could mean that levels of growth in the region are becoming unsustainable.

“So we are running a very dangerous political game right now. And unfortunately, we have, based on Tampa Bay Water plans, our growth plans in all three counties, Pasco, Hillsborough, and Pinellas, are tied to that alternative water coming online making sure it was going to be there so they can keep saying: ‘Yes, go. Yes, go. Yes, go.’ Well, not keeping up. No, they’re not going to turn on the well fields on tomorrow, but I predict within a year they have no choice.”

To learn more about Tampa Bay Water and the desalination plant, visit

Desalination plant info

Acciona Agua


Coalition 4 Responsible Growth Inc.

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