CLEARWATER — Clearwater is moving closer to producing nearly all of its own water as it prepares to build a second reverse osmosis water treatment plant.
The facility, projected to open by the end of next year, will treat millions of gallons of slightly salty water per day through a process that purifies water by removing salt and other materials.
The $34 million plant, set to begin construction in June, will be able to produce a maximum of 6.25 million gallons per day, although it will pump out about 5 million gallons on an average day, said Nan Bennett, assistant director of public utilities.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District will provide $15.2 million for the project. City water revenue will cover the rest.
The new plant will help contain costs by nearly eliminating the need to purchase water from Pinellas County Utilities, which currently supplies slightly less than half of the city's water needs, said Tracy Mercer, the city's utilities director.
"When you have the middleman, you keep adding costs," Mercer said.
Reverse osmosis treatment is more expensive than the traditional method of pumping directly from the ground, Mercer said, but increased regulation and testing requirements will eventually add to the cost of producing water that way.
City planners think that, over the long term, reverse osmosis will be more cost-effective.
Currently, Clearwater produces an average of 5.9 million gallons per day. Once the new facility opens, the city will have to purchase water only during peak days such as festivals or other heavy-use periods.
Unlike the city's first reverse osmosis plant, which opened in 2002, the new plant's by-product or "concentrate" won't be sent to a wastewater treatment plant to be turned into reclaimed water — it's too salty.
Instead, it will be injected into a well nearby that extends about 1,000 feet underground.
Use of deep well injection has been controversial, with some environmental advocates raising concerns that brackish concentrate could harm the Floridan aquifer, which supplies much of the state's drinking water.
The well is deep enough that it will inject the concentrate below the aquifer into salt water, which makes it unlikely to migrate to layers of fresh water, said Bennett.
The city will monitor the wells and has several levels of oversight, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Bennett said.
"We have all kinds of testing requirements," she said.
Clearwater utility officials were eager to emphasize the "green aspects" of the plant. A "cool" roof made with heat-reduction materials to save energy along with energy-efficient fixtures and landscaping, among other environmentally sustainable features, have been included in the design, Bennett said.
William Conlon, a Land O'Lakes consulting engineer who was project manager for Florida's first deep well injection in Sarasota County in the early 1980s, agreed the process is safe.
"It's very well regulated by a technical advisory committee with safety in mind. You can determine if something has gone awry," Conlon said, through the monitoring of well pressure, monitoring wells and analysis done every five years. "You're placing brackish water down through five confining layers into water saltier than sea water."