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Photo of shallow flats off Apollo Beach

Turning Oceans into Tap Water

by Ted Levin

Desalination promises to rescue sprawling communities in dire need of freshwater. Is that a good idea?

America is running out of drinking water. In parts of the arid West, this is literally true. In coastal areas, such as Pinellas County, Florida, the problem more closely resembles Coleridge's famous verse, "Water, water, every where/Nor any drop to drink." To slake its thirst, the local water authority, Tampa Bay Water, has built the largest desalination facility this side of Saudi Arabia. Situated on Apollo Beach, just across Tampa Bay from the Pinellas Peninsula, the plant is the only operational commercial desal facility in the United States. Eventually it will supply the region -- a three-county area with more than two million people and growing -- with 10 percent of its drinking water. (The rest will come from a now depleted aquifer, a new groundwater supply, and several aboveground rivers.)

The Apollo Beach plant may be a very good idea or a very bad one. It all comes down to this: Is desalination a legitimate response to a bona fide emergency, or is it simply an enabler for unchecked sprawl in fragile coastal areas that do not have the natural means to support their exploding populations?

Pinellas County, home of lovely St. Petersburg, is bounded on the west by the Gulf of Mexico and on the south and east by Tampa Bay. The soil is sandy and porous, perfectly suited for the engineering works of gopher tortoises. The beaches are classic Florida, bone-white sand lapped by blue water, beneath a wide arc of subtropical sky. In 1539, when Hernando de Soto marched up the Gulf coast, the Pinellas Peninsula was an open woodland of pines and palms and oaks. A dense coif of mangroves punctuated by salt marshes rimmed Tampa Bay, while the bay itself, covering nearly 400 square miles, was a mosaic of sea grass beds and oyster bars, mudflats and open water. In season, birds from across the continent convened in and around Tampa Bay to gorge themselves on the flats and beaches and in the woodlands and shallows, where shoals of fish moved from the Gulf to spawn or feed in the fecund estuarial waters. Sea turtles nested on the beaches. Manatees grazed the sea grass beds. Back then, before the dredging of shipping lanes, a man could have threaded his way across the shallow bay without wetting his hair.

Tampa Bay remained a symphonic wilderness well into the nineteenth century, but its despoliation was swift. In the late 1880s, the hub of Pinellas County was an unnamed community, population 30. In 1892, the community incorporated into St. Petersburg, population 400. Early in the last century, to meet future water needs, Pinellas County and the city of St. Petersburg bought land in the hinterlands of Pasco and Hillsborough counties, north of Tampa Bay. Eleven well fields set in remote wetlands supplied the city with the potable groundwater that the peninsula itself could not provide.

By 1920, the population of Pinellas County had reached 28,000. Five years later, after a six-mile bridge was built to connect Pinellas County and Tampa, the population had grown to 50,000. By 1950, it was 159,000. By 1970, it had soared to 522,000. Today, as Pinellas County's population reaches nearly a million, Pasco and Hillsborough counties have undergone population explosions of their own, further stressing the well fields. Surrounding wetlands have become fire hazards and nearby lakes have receded from their shores. The faucets of some Pasco County residents literally have run dry.

A century of dredging, filling, building, and digging has destroyed 80 percent of the sea grass beds and more than 40 percent of the mangroves and salt marshes. Storm water runoff from cities and farms and the dumping of untreated sewage continue to strangle Tampa Bay. Nitrogenous compounds from coal-fired power plants and automobile exhaust fall out of the air, lacing the rain with toxins and turning the bay's gin-clear water into an opaque algal soup that has smothered the sea grass beds.

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Ted Levin is the author of Liquid Land: A Journey Through the Florida Everglades, which received the 2004 Burroughs Medal. He lives with his wife and three boys in east-central Vermont.

Photo: Brian Smith
Map: Steve Stankiewicz
Illustration: Colin Hayes

OnEarth. Summer 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council