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We'll take you on your water's journey to your home

Jun 14, 2023

At some point today, you'll probably turn your sink handle, releasing clean, potable water.

But do you ever wonder where it comes from?

If you’re in Hillsborough, Pinellas or Pasco counties it's likely a combination of aquifer, river, and Gulf waters.

It's pumped and treated by the utility Tampa Bay Water before being sold to your distributor.

Let's follow your water's journey into your home.

We’ll start our tour at what used to be the Tampa Bay area's only source of drinking water: the Floridan aquifer.

We’re at the South Central Hillsborough Wellfield. It's a small sturdy building with a green roof surrounded by nature and a chain link fence. Inside, the confined space makes the water pump sounds bounce off the walls. It's really loud.

"What you're hearing is a pump right now running in the background. That pump is reaching down about 150 to 170 feet into the ground, and pulling water up out of the Floridan aquifer. And then we're taking that water and sending it to a nearby plant here for chemical addition. We don't have to treat it much, but we are going to add chlorine into there and make sure that is safe to be sent out into the distribution system," said Justin Fox with Tampa Bay Water.

About half of the water the utility sends out comes from the Floridan aquifer. It has about 177 different wells throughout the tri-county area.

Too much water was being pumped from underground 25 years ago, drying out area lakes and wetlands, so Tampa Bay Water was created to find alternate sources.

That brings us to the utility's surface water treatment plant in Tampa.

It's here where water from the Alafia River and Hillsborough Bypass Canal gets treated.

Fox walks me through the outdoor concrete area. Under a pavilion, there are pools of water differing in clarity and color, and more noisy machinery.

"We are standing over the beginning part of the plant. We have just introduced the chemicals into there," he said.

An iron compound is added for cleaning, so it looks like rusty water. These rust-like particles are growing bigger because other unwanted particles are attracted to the iron.

"As they grow larger, they get heavier, and they start to settle out of the water. They're just too heavy to stay afloat," Fox said.

We take a few steps down to the next pool where we see the water has become clearer.

"But it's not clean and able to be drank yet. That water still has viruses and bacteria in there that we need to treat with our ozone process just next down the line," he said.

We move to the baffle system. It's another pool but with narrow concrete walls that make the water travel a longer distance, which slows it down.

"That baffle system is making the water go through a maze, and that's giving it a longer contact time. We want that ozone to be able to get into the water and react long enough to kill everything that's in there," Fox said.

But breathing-in ozone can be a hazard so industrial stacks behind us destroy any excess ozone coming off the water, transforming that back into oxygen so that it's safe.

The water then goes through a sand filter and a carbon filter before chlorine is finally added.

River water represents about half the H2O in Tampa Bay Water's system. The plant can treat a maximum of 120 million gallons per day, but how much gets pumped is seasonal, based on rainfall.

During dry times, the utility can pull from their piggy bank… a freshwater reservoir in Lithia.

To get there, Fox drives us up a paved road that climbs about 70 feet to the top of the wall that contains the reservoir. We’re surrounded by 5,000 acres of preserved greenery.

"The reservoir, as we're looking out, is approximately 15 and a half billion gallons of water, which to put in perspective … is going to fill Raymond James Stadium about 33 times," he said.

Before this water fills our cups, it's enjoyed by fish, birds, and even easily spooked alligators.

On the south side of the reservoir, about eight gators are sunning on a boat ramp. Once they spot us, one-by-one they glide into the water. As the gators move out, so do we... to our last stop: the seawater desalination plant in Gibsonton near Apollo Beach.

We're outside on a concrete platform about 30 feet high.

"We're at the very beginning of the plant of where the water is coming in to our plant here. Behind me is TECO's Big Bend powerplant. We actually take our water in off of one of their canals. They have a cooling water loop that runs underneath of their facility," Fox said.

When Tampa Electric, or TECO, releases the water it's warm, which works out for Tampa Bay Water because it's easier to treat.

It's quiet here today because TECO took their cooling system offline for maintenance, but the desal plant is capable of turning 40 million gallons of salty gulf water into 25 million gallons of drinking water a day.

It smells fishy and like what you’d expect… salt water.

"And when these are tanks are full, it smells like you're at the beach," Fox said.

The saltwater usually comes into these big vats below us. It goes through an extensive filtration process of sand, soft rock, cartridge, and finally thin sheets they call membranes.

"Then the water is pretty pure water, but it's very aggressive. It's going to want to dissolve a lot of things at that point, so we actually add things back into the water to make it more tasty," he said.

"People prefer a water that has some minerals in it and some gasses in there, so we may add in carbon dioxide to adjust pH. We will add in lime, which is a calcium product."

This whole process uses a lot more energy and money than other treated waters.

The groundwater facility, on average, costs about $1 per 1000 gallons produced. Surface water is about twice that. And desal, depending on chemical and electricity costs, will be anywhere from three-to-five times more expensive than groundwater.

Fox said the biggest reason Tampa Bay Water is investing in desal is because it's sustainable and it's drought proof.

"I don't think it can exist on its own. Our water rates would be very, very expensive, but I think it can be a good staple within the sources that we at Tampa Bay Water are using and will hopefully be able to continue to use for years to come," he said.

Right now, the desal makes up 8%-12% of the overall water produced, with groundwater and surface water equally filling out the rest.

Tapping more into desal could be in our future as the area grows.

Until then, Fox said people need to be conscious of how they’re using water.

"Our water here is plentiful, but it's not unlimited. And so, we need to make sure that we're using that water wisely, that we're using that water in a sustainable manner," he said.

That way, when you turn on your faucet, the water will continue to flow.