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Rethinking Tampa Bay’s water resources as the climate changes

Just north of the iconic Big Bend Power Station on Hillsborough County's southeastern shore, the Tampa Bay Desalination Plant processes millions of gallons of saltwater through a teeming maze of pumps and pipes. The final output: fresh drinking water for your tap, to the measure of up to 25 million gallons every day.

Historically, the Tampa region has relied on groundwater pumping for the overwhelming majority of its drinking water. But environmental issues like saltwater intrusion and over-pumping triggered a long series of Tampa Bay "water wars'' between local governments and the state in the 1980s and 1990s.

As Christopher Meindl, Associate Professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg has written, the water wars prompted the creation of a new regional water utility and, with it, a new approach to sourcing the region's drinking water. That entity, Tampa Bay Water, last year (2015) supplied an average of roughly 156 million gallons of wholesale water a day through a 2,000-square-mile water system to some 2.4 million residents living across Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

About two thirds of the water from your tap still comes from 13 groundwater wellfields scattered across Pasco and Hillsborough counties, where nearly 200 pumps mine the Floridan aquifer. The other third is culled from surface water sources like the Alafia River during Tampa Bay's infamous summer rainstorms.

The $158 million desal plant, which was the largest saltwater desalination plant in North America when it opened in 2007, provides just 1 percent of the region's water during wetter years like this one (2016). Because it's much more costly to operate, it serves as a backup for drier periods. But it could play a more important role in the future as climate change transforms the region's water supply.