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Liquid oxygen shortage changes Tampa Bay Water treatment process; people asked to conserve water

People in southern Hillsborough County might notice a slight difference, but the quality will remain the same, the utility says.

TAMPA, Fla. — People living in some parts of Hillsborough County are being encouraged to conserve drinking water by eliminating non-essential water use.

On its website, the county is recommending people limit lawn watering and car washing, along with the use of pressure washers.

The recommendation comes as Tampa Bay Water operators work to combat a shortage of liquid oxygen caused by heightened hospital demand. As a result, Tampa Bay Water is changing its treatment process.

Before we explain that, we should note that while the City of Tampa is also changing its treatment process, that utility is not encouraging people to limit their water use. You can read more about what the city is doing here.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay Water's temporary treatment process adjustment, going into effect Thursday, impacts people living in southern Hillsborough County, according to a news release. The utility says the change is necessary at its Lithia Hydrogen Sulfide Removal Facility given fewer deliveries of liquid oxygen, which is used in the water treatment process, and its use for hospitals to treat COVID patients.

"We found out last week that we're experiencing a shortage in deliveries, but the good news is that we're able to use another treatment method," Brandon Moore with Tampa Bay Water said.

The President of the Florida Hospital Association, Mary Mayhew, says the shortages are just starting to stack up in Florida. The liquid oxygen is literally liquid gold for hospitals. It's needed for the ventilators and high flow equipment.

"This is being caused by both a challenge for the suppliers to have the adequate number of drivers to distribute the oxygen, but given the significant demand, I am concerned that there is a supply challenge. We have hospitals that are using three to four times the amount of oxygen that they would typically use," Mayhew said.

While the shortage shouldn't effect the water in Hillsborough County, the need in Florida hospitals is indescribable. 

"It's one thing to run out of masks, it's a whole other thing to have your oxygen levels run that low," Mayhew said.

Officials in Central Florida last week told residents to immediately conserve water given the significant rise of COVID-related hospitalizations and the demand for liquid oxygen in medical settings.

Utility workers will use sodium hypochlorite, otherwise known as bleach, to treat the water — rather than use liquid oxygen — and remove hydrogen sulfide. People who are sensitive to taste and odor changes might notice a difference, the utility says, but the water otherwise will meet or be better than local, state and federal standards.

"The lack of deliveries of liquid oxygen is due to a driver shortage caused by the COVID pandemic and the need for available supplies to be diverted to local hospitals," Tampa Bay Water said in a statement. "The agency continues to work with its vendors to restore regular deliveries."

Tampa Bay Water supplies wholesale drinking water to Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas counties. It also supplies to the cities of Tampa, St. Pete and New Port Richey.