U.S. Water News Online
TAMPA, Fla. -- Small plastic bottles with labels
proclaiming "a taste of Florida's future" contain drinking water
pumped from the sea.
Filtered and treated at a desalination plant that supplements
supplies in the Florida Keys, the bottled water is a crystal-clear
marketing gimmick to show that taking the salt out of seawater offers
a drought-proof solution to the state's water woes.
But a few hundred miles from the Keys, Tampa's troubled
desalination plant -- built to become the largest of its kind in
North America but still struggling to run at full capacity -- stands
as a monument to how costly and uncertain the investment can be.
During a drought that has led to the toughest water restrictions
in South Florida history, water managers have renewed their call to
explore using the sea to help meet water needs.
Fort Lauderdale is among the sites where the South Florida Water
Management District proposes a pilot program to test tapping into
"We are sucking Florida dry right now," said Arlyn Higley,
director of operations for the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority.
"Desalination is the way of the future."
Desalination is not a new practice -- the Keys have relied on it
for more than a century.
The first desalination plant in the United States was built in the
1840s in Key West to serve troops at Fort Zachary Taylor.
Today, a desalination plant on nearby Stock Island, which produces
the bottled water, and another on Marathon, serve as a backup water
supply for the southern Keys in case hurricanes or other emergencies
damage the freshwater pipeline from Florida City. Those plants, can
produce about 3 million gallons of water a day, compared with the 17
million gallons a day the Keys can pump from freshwater wells.
The earliest desalination involved heating saltwater, collecting
the steam, and then condensing the steam for drinking water.
Today's plants pump water at high pressure through membranes with
hair-thin fibers that filter out the salt, producing fresh water that
can be used for drinking water.
Fishing boats and barges plow through the water in Safe Harbor
Channel beside Stock Island, the same water the Florida Keys Aqueduct
Authority taps to supply its desalination plant.
The plant, on a finger of land jutting into the Atlantic Ocean,
was rebuilt in 1998 at a cost of $8.3 million. It houses 440
membrane-packed cylinders that filter seawater, pumped through at
1,000 pounds per second by high-powered diesel engines.
Thirty percent of the seawater emerges from the process as usable
freshwater, while the salty leftovers get pumped into a 210-foot-deep
It costs about $5 per 1,000 gallons to produce the desalinated
water, compared with less than $1 per 1,000 gallons to tap into
conventional sources, Higley said.
"The energy cost is much more expensive than just pumping it out
of the ground," Higley said. "That's why we don't run this plant any
more than we absolutely have to."
The New Water Supply Coalition -- made up of water management
agencies, including in South Florida and the Keys -- is lobbying
Congress for legislation to help finance the construction of
desalination plants, to follow the lead of countries such as Israel,
Australia and Saudi Arabia, which already convert seawater to
"We in the United States are behind the curve," coalition director
Hal Furman said. "When you have high growth rates ... coupled with
droughts, it is natural that you are going to have to look for
alternative water supplies."
The South Florida district in 2001 teamed with Florida Power &
Light Co. to explore building desalination plants beside electric
power plants, with the hopes of limiting energy costs and using
seawater already pumped in to cool the power plants.
A list of 23 possible sites stretching from Fort Pierce to Miami
ultimately was trimmed to three & beside FPL's Lauderdale and
Port Everglades power plants, as well as one in Fort Myers.
Eye-popping construction estimates -- $276 million for Port
Everglades, $148 million for Lauderdale and $91 million for Fort
Myers -- have kept the plants from being built.
In Fort Lauderdale, the proposals compete with less expensive
alternatives such as tapping into the Floridan aquifer, a deeper,
more plentiful supply than the more commonly used Biscayne aquifer,
and using water from a Palm Beach County reservoir.
The city contends the district should conduct a pilot program at
the proposed sites to get a better handle on the costs and how that
system would fit with the city's current water facilities, city
spokesman Chaz Adams said.
"It could potentially have regional benefits," Adams said.
Tampa's problems with desalination leaves communities leery, said
Ken Herd, director of operations and facilities for Tampa Bay Water,
which owns the plant.
Tampa opened a plant in 2003 that was supposed to produce 25
million gallons of water a day, but it has been plagued with
Pre-treatment of the water drawn from Tampa Bay failed to filter
out sediment, algae and other small particles that damaged the
Switching contractors and fixing deficiencies cost $48 million and
pushed the total plant price to $158 million.
The plant now produces about 18 million gallons a day that gets
mixed into the drinking water supply. Tampa Bay Water hopes to have
the plant at full capacity by the end of the year, Herd said.
"It has huge political risks," Herd said about policymakers
pursing expensive desalinization alternatives.
Along with the cost, desalination plants face environmental
concerns. Getting rid of the briny leftovers could threaten fisheries
and coral reefs.
Environmental activists are fighting a similar waste product
disposal problem for a new Lake Worth water plant that would tap into
the Floridan aquifer and dump wastewater a mile off the coast.
"Any waste we produce, we have to be careful where we put it,"
said Ed Tichenor, director of Palm Beach County Reef Rescue.
No desalination plants are on the drawing board for South Florida
through 2025, said Mark Elsner, water district director for
alternative water supplies.
That could change, he said, as South Florida's population
pressures start to outweigh desalinization cost concerns.
In the 1960s, Higley said periodic water "outages" helped persuade
the Keys to invest in desalination.
"People don't like to pay a lot of money for something they think
is readily available," Higley said. "People are going to have to pay
a lot more for water."
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