Reservoir water intended to replenish the Loxahatchee River and boost community supplies could instead get tapped by Florida Power & Light Co.'s new power plant in western Palm Beach County.
South Florida taxpayers invested $217 million to convert old rock mining pits at Palm Beach Aggregates, west of Royal Palm Beach, into a 15 billion-gallon reservoir.
The reservoir — criticized for its cost and touched by political scandal — was finished in 2008, but expensive pumps must still be constructed to start delivering water to the Loxahatchee. Also, water-quality concerns are hampering the reservoir's ability to replenish community water supplies.
In the meantime, FPL proposes dipping into the reservoir water to help run its nearby plant, also built on former Palm Beach Aggregates land.
The South Florida Water Management District's board on Thursday is to decide whether to allow FPL to install a temporary pump and pipeline to deliver reservoir water to the power plant.
"That wasn't the purpose of the reservoir. … They shouldn't set that precedent," said Drew Martin, of the Sierra Club.
FPL would pay for the temporary pump and pipeline, but wouldn't have to pay for using the reservoir water.
The long-term water-supply plan for the power plant is to use recycled, treated wastewater — typically used for irrigation — but Palm Beach County's water lines are not yet completed. FPL wants to use the reservoir water until early 2011.
Water management district officials contend that sending some of the water to FPL would help address water-quality problems arising from the stormwater now largely left stagnant in the reservoir.
Elevated levels of chloride in the reservoir water are raising concerns about its suitability for replenishing the Loxahatchee, or even replenishing community supplies during droughts.
The district has been cycling fresh water into the reservoir from the nearby L-8 stormwater drainage canal and then discharging mixed water back into the canal.
South Florida's system of canals flushes stormwater out to sea to guard against flooding. The purpose of the reservoir is to hold onto some of that water and use it to replenish the Loxahatchee River, cut off from water flows by decades of draining South Florida to make way for development and agriculture.
The reservoir also is intended to boost local community water supplies and during recent droughts helped prop up West Palm Beach's strained supplies.
Sending water to FPL ultimately could use about 10 percent of the water supply available in the reservoir and is estimated to lower chloride levels, said Ken Ammon, deputy executive director of the South Florida Water Management District.
"Recycling and being able to dilute the water … it's a good win-win system in the interim," Ammon said.
Two of the three power-generation units at FPL's new natural-gas-fuel power plant, called the West County Energy Center, are up and running.
To get water to run the power plant, FPL is now using water from 1,200-foot-deep wells that pump it out of the salty aquifer that also is tapped to supplement South Florida's drinking water supplies.
FPL's plant heats water to generate steam used to power electricity-producing turbines. It also uses water to cool the steam so that the water can be heated again to keep providing energy. The waste water produced by the plant gets pumped underground.
The new plan would blend the water from FPL's wells with water from the reservoir, reducing the amount of water the utility pumps out of the ground. The company estimates it would pump about 5,000 gallons per minute out of the reservoir, FPL spokesman Neil Nissan said.
The power plant and reservoir have been dogged by controversy.
Environmental groups have protested FPL's new power plant, arguing against more fossil-fuel-powered energy production that they contend leads to more pollution and encourages development in already overcrowded South Florida.
Also, the reservoir project and Palm Beach Aggregates' past development proposals were linked to corruption investigations that prompted two Palm Beach Countycommissioners to resign and go to prison amid a federal corruption investigation.
The water management district is collaborating with the Army Corps of Engineers to get the reservoir pumps built. Design work on the pumps could begin this summer, Ammon said. How to pay for the estimated $60 million cost remains the key stumbling block.
"I'm very confident that long-term, this project will be able to deliver the water," Ammon said.
Martin, of the Sierra Club, called the reservoir at Palm Beach Aggregates "a huge waste of money."