In March 1999, Florida water officials authorized the construction of a 25 MGD desalination facility at Apollo Beach to serve the city of Tampa.
Currently the largest desalination plant in America, the facility was promised to be privately owned and operated with a budget of $158 million and scheduled to be operational in 2003. Intended to offset declining groundwater levels and a growing population, the Poseidon facility would generate enough water to supply 1.8 million customers.
After a series of contractor bankruptcies and running $40 million over budget the Tampa Bay desalination plant opened five years behind schedule in 2008. The plant failed its initial performance test, and required $30 million dollars in repairs to replace such items as corroded machinery and frequently fouling membranes. To date, Tampa has consistently failed to meet their promised freshwater production levels.
This failure not only weakens Poseidon’s argument of water independence, but also significantly increased the cost of operating the plant per unit of water. The facility also violated their sewer discharge permit due to the discharge of cleaning chemicals used to treat the sensitive membranes.
Tampa Bay should be a warning to Huntington Beach and local water districts. To date, Poseidon has only completed one desalination plant, in Carlsbad CA. At the least, the Orange County Water District should wait and see if Poseidon’s Carlsbad plant operates as promised before proceeding with an agreement.
Additionally, according to Poseidon’s recently released term sheet, Orange County Water District will be required to purchase desalinated water whether needed or not, guaranteeing Poseidon and its investors a substantial profit. However, this places ratepayers at substantial financial risk. Elsewhere, such as Santa Barbara, Tampa Bay and four of the six plants built in Australia; water agencies have decided to let expensive desalination plants sit idle due to extremely high operational costs. Orange County Water District will not have that option, even in the wettest of years.