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Tarpon finally breaks ground for drinking water facility

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Published:   |   Updated: April 4, 2013 at 10:59 AM
TARPON SPRINGS -

Spirits were high and a better-late-than-never mindset ruled the day March 26 as the city broke ground for its reverse-osmosis water treatment plant.

Years of debate, planning and legal challenges preceded the symbolic start of what the city calls its Alternative Water Supply Project.

City commissioners donned hard hats and brandished golden shovels to officially mark the beginning of construction at the future site of a reverse-osmosis water treatment facility that will supply potable water to residents of Tarpon Springs.

“This is a great day for the city of Tarpon Springs and I think everyone in your community should be proud of your commitment and your perseverance and your patience to get to this point,” said the project director, Clyde Burgess of Wharton-Smith Construction Group, an Orlando-based general contracting and construction management firm.

The facility, with a total price tag of about $45 million, is at the end of L&R Industrial Boulevard, north of the Anclote River. The Southwest Florida Water Management District is putting up $20.1 million of the construction cost as part of its efforts to encourage public utilities to develop alternative sources of drinking water.

The plant will remove salt from brackish water pumped from city wells, rendering it potable.

Burgess, one of five speakers at the groundbreaking event, said Wharton-Smith will help the city play catch-up. “You should have this project built by now, but we’ll expedite it and try to get it completed for you as quickly as you can.”

The city has been planning to build the water treatment plant since the early part of the previous decade. City officials want Tarpon Springs to produce its own drinking water, rather than buy it from Pinellas County. Roughly 70 percent of city voters said yes to the water plant project in a 2006 referendum.

Much of the long delay in getting the project off the drawing board was a legal challenge against the plant waged by a local resident, Henry Ross. Ross believed the plant and its briny byproduct, which will be discharged into the Gulf, poses a risk to wildlife and the environment. The city eventually prevailed in court against Ross.

But last Tuesday’s event at the plant site was more focused on moving forward rather than on the difficulties that bogged down progress in the past.

Mayor David Archie worked the crowd of about 50 for a few laughs and thanked all the people involved with getting the project to this point.

“Perseverance and hard work brought us to this point today,” Archie said. “To do this and not even recognize our former City Manager Ellen Posivach, to me, would also be a disservice.”

Commissioner Chris Alahouzos hailed the dedication of city officials and staffers to the project.

“From the referendum to this groundbreaking, it was a long, difficult road,” he said. “We faced many obstacles, but thanks to all the people that are here today we were able to overcome them.”

The Tarpon Springs reverse-osmosis plant is scheduled to go into service in early 2015. Oldsmar’s reverse-osmosis plant recently went online, and Clearwater will break ground on its second such facility later this year.

“We are serving our local utilities, but at the same time we’re doing our part to help the regional water supply,” said Tarpon Springs Public Services Director Paul Smith. “I think that’s going to become increasingly significant as our economy’s recovering, as more people are coming to Florida and water demands increase.”

Todd Pressman, a member of the SWFWMD governing board, told the crowd reserves-osmosis plants and other alternative drinking water sources within the district’s 16-county region had lowered the amount of water being pumped from the Floridan aquifer by more than half. Years of overpumping at conventional well fields is thought to have been causing environmental damage.

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