A proposed desalination plant in Hillsborough County, Fla., cleared its last major legal hurdle recently when a judge recommended state environmental officials issue a permit to operate the plant, according to a St. Petersburg Times report. In a 106-page ruling, the judge quashed the arguments of Save Our Bays and Canals, a group of residents who argued the plant's residue will harm marine life in the bay. The group had argued in August that strict monitoring of the plant is needed to ensure the amount of oxygen and salt residue pumped into the bay remains within safe levels. The judge found their arguments were without merit, and sided with Tampa Bay Desal, the private company building the plant.

"Tampa Bay Desal provided reasonable assurances that the proposed discharge will meet ¿surface water standards set to protect recreational uses, including fishing and swimming, and protect the water body for the propagation of a healthy, well-balanced population of fish and wildlife," wrote the judge.

Once in operation, the plant is expected to provide up to 25 million gallons of drinking water a day. Municipal officials and regional water experts say the plant will provide a drought-proof source of water and reduce the need for groundwater pumping in the area, especially in places like fast-growing Pasco County.

Representatives of Tampa Bay Water, which serves nearly two million people in the area, and officials with Tampa Bay Desal cheered the judge's decision. "The bottom line is, the judge underscored the fact that the plant is both an excellent source of water and a way to protect the environment," said Honey Rand, a plant spokeswoman. "That is very gratifying."

Save Our Bays and Canals members were reluctant to comment on the decision, or say whether they might appeal. "We haven't gotten the order and seen what it actually says," said BJ Lower, the group's president.

Tampa Bay Water, the state Department of Environmental Protection, Tampa Electric Co., Pasco County, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg all support the desalination project. The plant, which will cost about $110 million to build, will be the largest seawater desalination plant in the United States, and the first such privately financed and privately owned plant. It is expected to begin operation in December 2002.