TAMPA — The Tampa Bay area has a long history of local governments jockeying to control sources of water, but not water into which people have pooped.
That could change.
Tampa and Hillsborough County both want to take reclaimed water — essentially, highly treated wastewater that's nearly pure enough to drink — and put it to a new use. For Tampa, this would mean taking several extra steps to purify the water further and adding it to its drinking water supply, something already done from California to Israel.
Currently, Tampa's Howard F. Curren Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant discharges up to 55 million gallons of treated wastewater into Tampa Bay daily.
But city officials say that water could be used to meet the demands of growth, make the Hillsborough River more healthy, keep the city's reservoir full year-round and even provide surplus water for use by other governments.
Here's how it would work:
Instead of dumping reclaimed water directly into Tampa Bay, the city would build a pipeline and pump the water 9 miles to the north.
Up to 50 million gallons a day would be pumped 900 feet underground into the Floridan Aquifer, the massive underground source of much of the state's drinking water.
The city would pump it back up from a depth of 300 feet. As the water moved "through that 600 feet, you'll get natural treatment," said top Tampa utilities official Brad Baird. Roughly half of the water recovered from the aquifer would be sent to the city's David L. Tippin Water Treatment Facility. The other half would go into the Hillsborough River reservoir upstream from the city dam at Rowlett Park.
There, officials say, it would keep the reservoir full even during the winter dry season. It also would let the city provide an estimated 20 million gallons of water a day to the Tampa Bay Water treatment plant north of E Adamo Drive and near U.S. 301.
Tampa estimates its system would cost $250 million to $300 million. City officials think they could start construction on the system within five years.
Hillsborough County has its own pilot program, known as SHARP. For the past two years, the county has pumped 2 million gallons of water a day underground at a facility near Port Redwing in Gibsonton. The original goal was to form a bubble that would keep saltwater from intruding on the freshwater aquifer, though Hillsborough officials have discussed pumping it back up, too.
But in recent months, a potential disagreement has come up. On one side are the city and county. On the other, Tampa Bay Water, the multi-county agency created in 1998 to provide drinking water to the region and prevent local government fights over the resource. The agency consists of six member governments: Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, plus Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey.
Tampa Bay Water officials say Tampa's plans raise the question of whether the city has the ability within the agreement that created the agency "to create a source of potable water for itself" or other member governments. One scenario that's been raised would send reclaimed water from Tampa to Tampa Bay Water's treatment plant. Local officials have said that would mean later buying water they created back from the regional agency.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who sits on Tampa Bay Water's board, described an executive committee meeting in September on the topic as "three hours of hell."
Since then, she said the discussion between Hillsborough officials and Tampa Bay Water staff has become more cooperative. On Monday, Tampa Bay Water's board voted to create a committee of utility directors from its member governments to study reclaimed water, with recommendations due back to the board next June.
"I feel like everybody is getting on the same page," Murman said before the meeting.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn remains skeptical.
"I'll believe it when I see it and get a chance to participate in it," he said. Reclaimed water is "a product we create. We are not going to create this product and be forced to buy it back."
After talking to Tampa officials, state Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said she plans to file a bill to give cities and counties that produce reclaimed water the authority to determine how it is used.
In 2012, Young successfully sponsored a similar bill while serving in the Florida House of Representatives, but that was aimed at preventing the state's water management districts from commandeering control of reclaimed water produced by local governments. It didn't address an agency like Tampa Bay Water.
"This is concerning to me, because what Tampa is looking to do is cutting-edge," she said. "Filing a bill to clarify what appears to be unclear will solve this."
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay Water is updating a long-range master water plan that is considering the use of not only reclaimed water but also more surface water, such as from a second reservoir, or the Alafia River, as well as additional water from existing well fields and expanded use of desalination.
The agency expects new sources of water to be needed by 2028, and it takes about 10 years to plan, get permits for and build a new source, so Tampa Bay Water aims to have a short list of projects for its board to consider by December 2018. For now, it's looking at the feasibility of different options, with plans to ask the public for its comments soon.
"Once the studies, cost estimates and public outreach are completed, the project concepts will be ranked based on a set of criteria that meet our board's over-arching goal of finding future water supplies that are cost-effective, reliable and environmentally sustainable," Tampa Bay Water spokeswoman Michelle Stom said in an email. "The selection of a project for actual construction will not be made for several years."