Utilities Director Robert Powell says most people don’t notice what his department does until the service is not there. He calls utilities systems the “silent service.”
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Former Utilities Director Pick Talley recalls a time when some residents, who lived farther away from pumping stations or at high elevations, could get no water at all, especially when people got home from work and turned on their sprinklers.
CLEARWATER – County Commissioners proclaimed May 19 as Pinellas County Day in celebration of the Utilities Department’s 80th birthday.
In a video presented during the meeting, Utilities Director Robert Powell described utility systems as a “silent service.”
“The only time you notice is when it is not there,” he said. “And then it is a surprise because most of the time, the majority of the time, it is there.”
Former Utilities Director Pick Talley, who retired in 2008 after 23 years with the department, joined Powell in the video that reviewed the history of utility service in Pinellas.
“The beach communities in the early 1900s could sink a well and hit a lens of fresh water that was sufficient for their use,” Talley said.
But in the 1920 and 1930s, the volume of water needed increased and wells began to draw in saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico and Intracoastal Waterway. They had no choice but to move to the mainland to develop wells farther away for the coast, he said.
In 1935, an Act of the Legislature created the Pinellas County Water System.
The customer base for the first Walsingham plant was 200 served by a 1.5 million gallon a day system, Powell said. The first expansion of that system came in 1955.
“Mr. Eldridge and Mr. Wilde offered this property to the county to build a well field to provide high quality water,” Talley said. “When it opened, it provided much better quality of water than the wells in the Clearwater area.”
The Eldridge-Wilde well field began producing in 1956. Around the same time, wells in mid-county, Walsingham area, began to experience saltwater intrusion.
“When I got here in the ‘70s, the conversion from orange groves to houses was well underway,” Tally said. “There were times of the day, when some of the higher elevations and locations farther away from the pumping stations got no water. You couldn’t flush a toilet. That went on for two years.”
The Cypress Creek pumping station, which went online in 1976, solved the availability problem - at least temporarily.
In 1996, member governments of the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority began discussions on how best to meet water demand needs of the future, Powell said. The result of those discussions was Tampa Bay Water Authority, which formed in 1998 and now provides wholesale drinking water to Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties as well as New Port Richey, St. Petersburg and Tampa.
“We got out of the production business and became a customer of Tampa Bay Water,” Talley said.
The county remained involved, serving as technical advisers to Tampa Bay Water and two commissioners serve on the authority’s board.
“But our actual utility model was to become a customer of another supplier,” Talley said.
Talley attended the May 19 proclamation ceremony and reminded commissioners of the improvements in service enjoyed by today’s Utilities customers.
“Back in the day, there was not enough,” Talley said. “People came home from work and turned their sprinklers on and those farther away from the pumping stations and at higher elevations had no water,” Talley said. “Imagine the issues, fire protection during those times. We had a building moratorium. There were surcharges on water use.”
Today, Utilities serves about 600,000 customers and delivers an average of 50 million gallons of water a day, Powell said. He talked about the department’s path forward and the need to evaluate resources and increase reuse of water. He said it was important to keep moving forward.
“To stand still is to fail,” he said. “We simply will not fail on our mission to serve the citizens of Pinellas.”