TAMPA — Some people don't want to put treated sewer water on their plants. Others say it can be cleaned to the point where it's okay to drink.
Both topics will be part of a City Council discussion today on a $340 million plan to expand Tampa's reclaimed water program.
Council members are mixed on the toilet-to-tap concept.
The idea, first considered in Tampa decades ago but abandoned because of the "yuck" factor, is flush with possibilities, said Council member Charlie Miranda.
"At a minimum, we should put it out to a vote by the public," Miranda said.
The technology exists to treat the water to the point where, combined with a natural cleansing process, it could be safely returned to the drinking water supply. It's something that's done in Virginia, California and Texas, he points out.
Ralph Metcalf, director of the city's wastewater department, said upgrading the treatment plant to near drinking water standards would be less expensive than taking the water to New Tampa for irrigation.
Joseph Caetano, whose district includes New Tampa, is open to the concept.
"If chemically and scientifically it's declared to be safe to drink, I'd drink it," he said. "Up in the space (station), those guys are drinking their urine. I don't know what they're doing to it, but they're drinking it."
On the other side of the argument is Council member John Dingfelder, who said he's heard too many reports that excess hormones can never be completely removed from the water to support sending it back to taps.
"I hope we never in my lifetime get to the point where we need to be potentially directing that into our drinking water," he said.
Whatever the tactic, the city is under pressure to find a way to better use the 55 million gallons of reclaimed water that's dumped each day into Tampa Bay. The water is harmful to marine life, and state and federal environmental regulators will soon limit the city's ability to dispose of it in the Bay.
City officials have struggled for years to find a way to use the water to lessen dependence on drinkable water for irrigation and industry.
Pipes now take reclaimed water to about 8,700 potential customers in South Tampa, but that uses only a fraction of the water.
Components of the latest proposal include taking the water to big industrial customers and allowing Tampa Bay Water to use some of it to recharge the aquifer in Pasco County.
Early stages of the multi-year expansion would also include getting the water to twice as many customers in South Tampa and making it their only option for in-ground sprinkling.
Gardener John Starnes doesn't like the idea of forcing people to use the water for irrigation.
His case in point: the Davis Islands yard of Donna Beavis. Starnes tended to her landscaping for 17 years. Then, about five years ago, her plants started withering.
"Seeing her yard going into this decline baffled me. I thought I'd lost my touch," he said.
He discovered Beavis had switched from potable water to reclaimed water to irrigate. He blames the high salt content of the treated wastewater for the problems.
City officials acknowledge that reclaimed water can harm some plants, such as azaleas, ligustrums, camellias and gardenias.
Starnes said the city's plan should include upgrades to the treatment plant so the water will work for more types of foliage.
That would cost $100 million, said Brad Baird, manager of the city's water department.
"It doesn't make financial sense," he said. "If you stick with Florida-friendly plants you should be fine, because Florida-friendly plants typically have some salt tolerance."
Plants that don't thrive on salty water will do fine if the water goes onto the soil and not the leaves, Baird said.
Council member Mary Mulhern said the idea's benefits outweigh the possible cost to some vegetation.
"We're better off right now using reclaimed water for irrigation than dumping it in the bay," she said.
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.