International water experts, students, study Tampa Bay water supply

05/27/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Florida may once have had one of the world’s most richest water stores underlying most of the state, but now water managers across the state are scrambling to come up with more sustainable water sources for the coming decades. For example, Tampa Bay’s water utility is about to repair cracks in the 15 billion gallon CW Bill Young reservoir. The enormous surface water store is just part of the complex system the area uses to distribute the vital resource. An international team of water experts is in town to scope out the system.

"Typical ground water treatment for us is aeration if we have some hydrogen sulfide, that rotten egg smell, disinfection...."

A classroom full of budding water specialists got an earful about Tampa Bay’s water supply from the likes of Christine Owen of Tampa Bay Water. The group came from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Institute for Water Education. They were in town this week to find out about how Tampa deals with its complex water situation. Alison Ramoy of the Southwest Florida Water Management District said it’s not easy, given that Florida’s main water source – a thick layer of porous rock underlying most of the state – isn’t endless.

"Problem is is that as our population grows we have a finite amount of water. So now you may be thinking, 'well, what about all of that rain?" All of Florida's groundwater is replenished by rain fall. The district average annual rainfall is 53 inches, roughly. However, evapo-transpiration rates average about 39 inches, that leaves the remaining 14 inches serving to recharge the underlying aquifer systems."

Officials have long known that the vital resource is finite, which Tampa Bay Water’s Christine Owen said has caused a lot of political squabbling. She said this eventually resulted in Tampa Bay Water, which now supplies Pinellas, Pasco, and Hillsborough Counties and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa, and New Port Richey.

"The solution that was arrived at, and it was a political solution, was a new form of governance and a new partnership."

But doing away with the antagonistic environment that once characterized water discussions didn’t solve the fact that rainfall can’t replaced all the groundwater that’s being siphoned. Owen said the utility has had to think of other ways of getting water to local taps.

"The alternatives supplies for us our the surface water treatment plants and the desalination facility."

She admitted that the desal plant, the largest in the country, has been controversial, and said Tampa Bay Water considers conservation and reclaimed water as alternative sources. Owen said decades ago Tampa Bay got 99 percent of its water from the ground – now that number’s about 62 percent.

"I do a fair amount of work on a national level and when I talk to people about developing 100 million gallons of water, additional water supply, in less than ten years people's heads kind of spin around."

Members of the audience, who came from as far away as China and Ethiopia, appeared intrigued. They had spent yesterday touring Tampa Bay’s water supply facilities, and were gearing up to check out Tampa Bay Water’s surface water treatment plant. What seemed to surprise the group most was the amount of water consumed in the area. Biswa Bhattacharya, a senior lecturer at the Institute for Water Education, said Floridians’ excessive water use differs greatly from that of Europeans, but he can kind of see why.

"Compared to Europe, which is also using all kinds of modern facilities but still water usage is much less compared to Florida. Part of the reason is the weather here is hot and dry and also because people here have big gardens so they need to irrigate."

He said the trip aims to show students of the Amsterdam-based institute how things they discuss in theory are applied in practice, especially when it comes to flooding. The next leg of the trip will be south Florida, where they’ll get a glimpse of the Everglades Restoration Project.

Under the new state budget, that project faces deep cuts. Bhattacharya said he hopes the unique effort to reverse human-caused damage will find a way to continue despite it.

"I think the project is very important, quite unique in it's kind. I do understand about fund cuts, we do see these all over the world so I think that my message would be if there's a fund cut it could be delayed partly but not to abandon any part of it because it is so nice there and the whole world can learn quite a lot from it."

Institute for Water Education student Selam Belay is from Ethiopia. She said in just one day she’s already learned a lot about how governments deal with a dwindling water supply.

She said she hopes to apply what she’s learned back home in Ethiopia, where she Belay said water has typically been mismanaged over the years.

"There's shortage over weather in Ethiopia and that means in my opinion, there might be some management problems. So, after I've gained this knowledge I will go to Ethiopia and I will apply all the practical and the theoretical knowledge I've gained in UNESCO and also here in Florida."

The discussion took place at University of South Florida’s Patel School for Global Sustainability. According to USF’s Web site, the school is the only one in the nation to have signed a memorandum of understanding with UNESCO’s Institute for Water Education, which allows the two entities to collaborate on research and education.

Previous WMNF news coverage of UNESCO

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