It could cost us up to $1 billion, but before sinking that much money into a reservoir that would boost Broward and Palm Beach County drinking water supplies, county officials want to check the math.
Sticker shock has long stalled an eight-year-old idea to turn rock mines west of Royal Palm Beach into a 24 billion-gallon reservoir that could send much-needed water south to thirsty residents in Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Now supporters are hoping a more modest $150,000 investment by Palm Beach and Broward County utilities for an independent look at the cost can nail down, and maybe even shrink, the price tag.
"The project is gaining some momentum," Palm Beach County Water Utilities Director Bevin Beaudet said. "It's really [a chance] to augment water supplies for a long time."
But this new reservoir would be built next door to another one constructed from rock mines that already cost South Florida taxpayers $217 million and has yet to deliver water as intended.
Some question the need to build another one.
"It's a waste of money," said Drew Martin, of the Sierra Club. "I don't know why they want to keep studying it."
Palm Beach County is the last of nine local governments and utilities being asked to sign off on paying for the cost analysis. If the County Commission on Tuesday OKs the county's almost $30,000 share of hiring consultants, the answer could be just three months away.
This isn't the first time Palm Beach County and other government entities have been asked to chip in on pursuing this latest reservoir plan.
Palm Beach County already paid about $79,000 toward a previous $500,000 study back during the early years of the reservoir proposal, according to the water utilities department. In 2012, the updated project cost estimates more than doubled the projected cost to as much as $1 billion.
Getting a better cost projection is the next step in determining if the expensive reservoir project is worth dipping into the wallets of South Florida homeowners, according to Palm Beach County Mayor Priscilla Taylor.
"I think the public is concerned about water because it affects everybody," Taylor said. "We still have to see the numbers."
The idea behind the proposed reservoir is to capture a portion of the stormwater that now drains out to sea through the C-51 Canal, which stretches through West Palm Beach. The idea is to save that water to boost drinking water supplies.
The plan calls for existing canals operated by the South Florida Water Management District and the Lake Worth Drainage District to move that much-needed reservoir water south.
To try to address cost concerns, the Palm Beach Aggregates rock mining company — which owns the land where the reservoir is planned — in 2012 proposed building the reservoir in phases.
Palm Beach Aggregates offered to build the initial phase of the reservoir for about $150 million, with commitments from utilities in need of water to pay for tapping into the reservoir.
The troubled history of past Palm Beach County reservoir projects doesn't help the sales pitch for the new reservoir.
The existing reservoir was also built through a deal with Palm Beach Aggregates. While the water collecting portion of that reservoir was completed in 2008, the massive $64 million pumps needed to get the water flowing are just now under construction. That work should be completed in 2016, with hopes that getting the water circulating will resolve water quality problems.
Also, the South Florida Water Management District in December restarted work on an Everglades restoration reservoir landfill that was put on hold in 2008 after already costing taxpayers nearly $280 million. The 16,700 acre reservoir was shelved by the district as Everglades restoration plans changed and its ongoing reboot is expected to cost $60 million to complete.
Instead of building reservoirs, the Sierra Club contends that pushing for more water conservation would be a more effective and less expensive way to boost water supplies. It questions plans to use existing canals to send water from the proposed reservoir through the two counties.
"We are not sure how they are going to get [the water] south," Martin said. "That's another huge expense. Conservation is what works best."
The idea that South Florida officials could use rock mining pits and canals to store and deliver water to boost drinking water supplies without water quality problems is "based on pure fantasy," said long-time Palm Beach County environmental advocate Rosa Durando.
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