Blue Water
Intake risers for the $1.55 billion desalination plant in Sydney, Australia.

The construction of the Tampa Bay Desalination plant has been a decade-long odyssey for the Tampa Bay Water but it has also been a learning experience for the entire seawater desalination industry.

A final two-week round of testing found the facility to be in full working order and it was made part of the Tampa Bay Water system this week. The milestone comes after almost three-and-a-half years of bankruptcies, litigation and technical headaches of the highest order.

Initially estimated at $110 million the plant eventually cost $158 million to construct with $29 million of that going to the firm in charge of the remediation, a joint venture of American Water and Pridesa America Corp.

The completion of the project is a breakthrough for the entire industry, said Lisa Henthorne, president of the International Desalination Association but the problems it encountered have had an effect far beyond the confines of the region which will benefit from the water it supplies.

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  • "I believe it largely made the utilities more cautious in its acceptance of desalination which was unfortunate considering the thousands of successfully operating desalination plants around the world," she said.

    The two key lesions of the Tampa Bay project are ensuring proper pre-treatment and having sufficient oversight capability in place from the very start.

    "Pre treatment is essential to making it work," said Ken Herd, director of operations and facilities for Tampa Bay Water. "And you have got to monitor the technical issues and have access to all the pilot data and test information."

    Half a world away in Australia, planners of several billion-dollar plus sized reverse osmosis plants say the lesions of the Tampa project have been very much on their minds.

    In Sydney, Australia a massive $1.55 billion reverse osmosis desalination project is currently under construction that will provide 250 megalitres of water a day when completed in 2009. The plant is being built by Bluewater Joint Venture, consisting of Australian construction firm John Holland and Veolia Water of France in an extremely tight construction window – 26 months.

    To keep costs and risk under control, officials with Sydney Water said they were very aware of the problems that beset the Tampa Bay Water plant.

    "Tampa has been good for us all and it's been bad for us all," said Mike Watts, Project Manager for the Sydney Water desalination plant. "Its been good because it's really made us focus on understanding things like water quality and pretreatment process and our construction monitoring. But it's been bad because it's so well known for the problems it did have."

    One key aspect of the Tampa job that influenced Sydney Water's designs was the need to focus on pre-treatment to maintain the integrity of the membranes during the treatment process itself.

    "The guts of this is the pretreatment," Watt said. "You get the pre-treatment right and the reverse osmosis process is routine."