Tampa Bay Water faces potential fine

08/17/09 Seán Kinane
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Last spring Tampa Bay Water exceeded its permit for pumping water out of the ground. The regional water wholesaler now faces the threat of a one million dollar fine from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFMD). But SWFWMD has not yet decided whether to issue sanctions.

In the spring, Tampa Bay Water needed to pump more groundwater because of the intense drought and lower-than-expected production from alternative sources. Tampa Bay Water asked SWFWMD for relief from their 90 million gallon per day limitation.

Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber met with SWFWMD on July 29. During a Tampa Bay Water Board meeting today, Seeber said, "The district didn't make any promises to us that day, but they did leave every indication that our work in responding to the drought will go a long way towards mitigating any penalty that they feel might be appropriate. But I must tell you they are still focused on using their enforcement proceedings in this matter."

Seeber says he expects Tampa Bay Water to receive written notification from SWFWMD within the next month. He encourages Board members to lobby members of the SWFWMD governing board against a fine.

St. Petersburg City Council member and mayoral candidate Jamie Bennett, a Tampa Bay Water Board member, says he is “distressed” by what would be a “counterproductive” fine.

Tampa Bay Water Board chair and Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe acknowledges that SWFWMD has the responsibility “to make sure everyone adheres to the permit,” but he thinks that Tampa Bay Water has reacted well to difficult conditions.

Allison Adams, Tampa Bay Water’s source rotation and environmental protection manager, agrees that there has been a “substantial” reduction in water demand.

"For the months of April and May, we’ve had a demand reduction of around 27%. … The reduced demands ... have had a direct impact on reducing groundwater production."

After pumping more than 140 million gallons of groundwater per day in June, Adams is confident that Tampa Bay Water can reduce the twelve month average to below 90 million gallons per day. Adams expects summer rainfall to stay “near normal,” for demand to remain “quite low,” and for autumn rain to possibly exceed what is typical.

“As the climatic condition - the El Niño - has set up well in the Pacific Ocean for us. Not only does that mean that we probably won't have much in the way of threats of hurricanes - hopefully we'll have some tropical rains but no winds - but what that really means for us is the potential for a much wetter November, December, and January. So two things that could do for us is keep the demands down and also keep surface water flowing in the rivers, allow us to continue using the surface water treatment plant, and allow us to continue putting any water in storage if we're not able to absolutely fill the reservoir up this summer. And so we'll continue to use surface water as much as we have permitted available to us to use."

On May 20th, Tampa Bay Water began filling the 15.5-billion-gallon-capacity reservoir. The C.W. Bill Young reservoir now contains 7 billion gallons.

Tampa Bay Water is involved in a lawsuit against the three companies they blame for cracks in the reservoir and is represented by Richard Harrison, with the Tampa law firm of Allen Dell. Harrison updated the Board about a legal conflict Tampa Bay Water is having with HDR Engineering, which designed the reservoir. It concerns a consultant, Ed Link, who helped investigate the cause of reservoir cracking.

Harrison said, “I think it is fair to say that everything HDR said and did was intended to, and certainly gave us the impression, that Dr. Link was a part of this team that was investigating on your behalf. In the litigation we came across Dr. Link’s name. We came across a draft document that he prepared, and we decided that we wanted to get Dr. Link’s records, see what he had done on this investigation, and take his deposition and see what opinions, if any, he had about the reservoir and the cause of the cracking. So we subpoenaed Dr. Link. And in response HDR took the position that we were not allowed because in fact he had been hired as a litigation expert by HDR way back in January 2008.”

The motion is pending in court and there is no timetable for a decision, Harrison says. Repairs will take two years, potentially leading to severe water shortages while the reservoir is closed. Repairs are expected to cost $125 million and Tampa Bay Water hopes to recover those costs through the lawsuit. Board chair Mark Sharpe says he hopes to see the records from Link’s investigation.

The next Tampa Bay Water Board meeting will be October 19.

Tampa Bay Water

previous WMNF coverage of TBW

previous WMNF coverage of reservoir

Southwest Florida Water Management District

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