Upgrades may prevent repeat of squirrel-caused TECO power failure that shut off Tampa water

Squirrel gives Tampa utilities an expensive lesson

TAMPA - A garden variety squirrel taught our local utilities an expensive lesson last February when it apparently chewed through a power line leading to Tampa's waste water treatment plant. The whole city had to boil water for the weekend.

Now TECO and the city are sharing the expense of rodent-proofing the City's water supply.  It's not going to be cheap.

When the sharp teeth of the squirrel shorted out one of two power lines to the water treatment plant in North Tampa on February 22, the remaining power line overheated and failed as well.  With the water pressure dropping, Tampa Water had no choice but to order a city-wide boil-water alert.

Restaurants had to make coffee and other drinks with bottled water.  Some even closed their doors.  The incident highlighted the vulnerability of the basic services we all take for granted.

"Nearly one in five outages in Tampa Electric's network is caused by an animal," said TECO spokesperson Cherie Jacobs.  "Squirrels and birds are big culprits, but so are frogs and snakes."

Now, TECO is pledging $1 million in upgrades to protect against future failures, animal-caused or otherwise.  They'll be strengthening both power lines from going from substations into the water treatment station, one of them to Category 4 hurricane strength.  Other power lines will be buried underground.

Tampa Water director Brad Baird believes TECO has stepped up to the plate.

For their part, Tampa Water will beef up their side of the meter to the tune of a half-million dollars and change their response to future power interruptions by firing up the backup generator earlier.

And it turns out the rodent attack that resulted in the expenditure of $1.5 million never actually contaminated a single drop of Tampa water.

"The precautionary boil water was just that.  It was precautionary.  It's required by the health department when you lose pressure in any part of your system," said Baird.

The improvements by TECO and Tampa Water aren't expected to result in any extra taxes or assessments and they should be finished by early next year.

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