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Tampa considers turning wastewater to drinking water

TAMPA — If you flush it, can you drink it?

City Council member Charlie Miranda says yes.

On Thursday, Miranda revived a decades-old proposal to send treated wastewater back into the public drinking water supply.

"I really believe this is the only way for the city of Tampa to become self-sufficient and not have to spend more money buying water," he said.

The city currently dumps 55 million gallons of treated wastewater into Tampa Bay each day. The water is purified to the point that it can be used on lawns, but the city's reclaimed water system reaches only about 8,000 property owners.

Miranda said it will never be financially feasible to expand the system enough to maximize the use of the water.

But he said it could make financial sense to build a wastewater treatment plant to further purify the water. The water could be put back into the ground, where it would be naturally filtered before reaching the Hillsborough River and treated again before heading to customer's taps.

Utilities in Virginia, Texas and California already return highly treated wastewater to the drinking water supply, Miranda said. And he noted that astronauts recycle wastewater for drinking.

"If the astronauts do it, why can't we do it?" he said. "The technology is there."

By a 5-0 vote, the council endorsed his request to have city staff report back on the idea in three to four months. Council members John Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena were absent at the vote.

Miranda said he knows the concept is controversial, but said he's not afraid to go out on a limb to solve what he believes is a water supply crisis. He said that rather than have city officials make the decision, he'd like to put it on the ballot in 2010 or 2011.

The city first considered the idea of putting reclaimed water back into the public supply in the mid 1980s, spending $6 million to explore the concept.

An advisory panel studying health and safety factors determined it would be safe.

The project was endorsed by federal, state and local agencies, including the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Hillsborough County Health Department.

By 1998, the project was considered a possibility by Tampa Bay Water, the regional utility. But Tampa Bay Water rejected the idea, deciding instead to build a desalination plant.

At the time, estimates put the cost of building the treatment plant at between $70 million and $130 million.

Unwilling to embark on the project alone, the city instead decided to launch a reclaimed water system in south Tampa with water treated enough to make it safe for irrigation, but not drinking.

Ralph Metcalf, director of the city's wastewater plant, visited a wastewater-to-drinking water plant in Occoquan, Va., when the idea was first discussed in Tampa two decades ago.

"Honest to God, the water coming out of there looked like a Coors beer commercial," he said. "It was gorgeous. It was the most beautiful water you'd ever seen."

Metcalf said it's an option to consider again.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

How would
that work?

To see one way of how wastewater recycling works, go to our special Water Crisis report at tampabay.com/drought. There click on "Alternatives'' and then click on the "Recycling'' label.

Tampa considers turning wastewater to drinking water 05/07/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 8, 2009 3:54pm]
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