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Thirsty Tampa Bay ponders huge desalination plant
TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- The Tampa Bay area is wrestling with the ancient mariner's paradox: having water everywhere but not enough to drink. To combat the problem, the region is working to build the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere.
Coastal regions around the world are waiting to see if the project could lead to way to quench the thirst of growing populations saddled with limited water supplies.
Exponential growth has caught up with the 2.5 million residents of the Tampa Bay area.
"We're under high growth and all of the traditional water supplies have been tapped out. So we have to come up with alternative supplies," said Sonny Vergara, the Southwest Florida Water Management executive director.
At a cost of $100 million, the Tampa Bay water authority wants to build a desalination plant alongside the Big Bend power plant. The proposed facility would supply about 25 million gallons of water a day, about one tenth of the region's needs.
The area is hurt by a prolonged drought and diminishing underground water supplies. The alternative is turning ocean water into drinking water.
Other communities have tried before. Desalination plants in Key West, Florida, and Santa Barbara, California, were mothballed. They produced clean drinking water but it was too expensive.
Other attempts at building large desalination plants in the United States also have not been cost effective. But developers in Tampa Bay say new technology will allow them to produce affordable drinking water.
Private developers are operating a small prototype that takes salt out of brackish water. They are guaranteeing clean water at a cost of a little more than $2 per thousand gallons, an unheard of price for a desalination plant.
But a vocal group of critics called Save our Bay and Canals is trying to stop the project. They are concerned that the high salinity wastewater pumped back into the bay will hurt the environment.
"Discharging the world's largest desalination plants using sea water going into an estuary is not a proper discharge," said SOBAC's Patricia Mitchell.
The protesters' best chance to derail desalination is for the state Department of Environmental Protection to reject the permit. But if developers meet environmental regulations, the project moves ahead.
If it does, it is slated to become the largest desalination plant this side of Saudi Arabia. It has already gained the attention of representatives from Singapore, Australia and other nations facing acute water shortages.
Los Angeles officials want to turn wastewater into drinking water
Southwest Florida Water Management District
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