TAMPA — Every day, the city of Tampa dumps 55-million gallons of highly treated sewer water into Tampa Bay.
It adds pollutants to the bay. It could feed thirsty lawns and ease the demand on valuable drinking water. And at current rates, it's a liquid commodity that could be worth $32-million a year in sales to the city.
But Tampa has been trying — and failing — for nearly 10 years to put the water to good use.
Now, Mayor Pam Iorio is under pressure from state lawmakers to sign on with a private company that wants to sell Tampa's water to customers that include Tampa Electric Co., Mosaic Fertilizer, Hillsborough and Polk counties, Lakeland and Bartow.
The company, Water Partners Inc., is not-for-profit. But since it's private, not all of its operations are open to public scrutiny.
That unnerves some government officials, who want to make sure they can keep track of how the company would use and price Tampa's water, as well as how it might spend the millions in tax money it might receive.
"We're told we're going to have to trust the process," said City Attorney David Smith. "We just want to make sure that process includes us."
Why consider the public-private venture at all?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pressuring Florida to limit its release of nitrogen and other pollutants into coastal waters. And state lawmakers are taking steps to make rules for reclaimed water use.
That could take away Tampa's control of its water altogether.
At a recent meeting, City Council member Charlie Miranda said the city should participate in all conversations about plans for its water, or legislators would "take it away from us for distribution to the region without one penny to the citizens who create it."
The plans involve Hillsborough County and a small amount of its reclaimed water, too.
Commissioner Jim Norman recently asked for more time to consider the proposal, saying he's concerned about having a nonprofit group in charge and how much the plan might cost the county.
"I love the concept," Norman said later. "I'm not sure that the structure is right."
Cost of the system
The concept is neither small nor cheap.
So far, Hillsborough County, Tampa Electric and Mosaic have committed $300,000 each to pay WPI for a preliminary design of a system to deliver Tampa's reclaimed water to customers.
The company is slated to ask the commission for another $1.5-million next month as part of a $4.5-million design phase.
And late last year, WPI asked the Southwest Florida Water Management District to give it $94-million in property taxes to pay for half of the $188-million project. The company proposes using the money to get a bank loan to be repaid with money from the sale of Tampa's water.
The officers of Water Partners Inc. are two attorneys: John Wilcox, who has worked as a consultant for Mosaic, and Tom Lash. They run the company from the downtown Tampa offices of the Saxon, Gilmore law firm.
Wilcox represented the Southwest Florida Water Management District during the region's so-called "water wars" 15 years ago and later worked for Tampa Bay Water, the regional water utility.
The current project, he said, grew out of conversations between Mosaic and Hillsborough County about using the county's reclaimed water in Mosaic's processing operations.
Mosaic wanted only a little water, but it has a huge reservoir that could be used to store billions of gallons of water.
That caught the attention of Tampa Electric, which could use more reclaimed water to expand its operations in Polk County.
So Wilcox helped found WPI in August 2007 to broker the deal.
But the county doesn't produce enough water to meet the needs of all of WPI's potential customers. Enter Tampa and the 55-million gallons its residents produce each day.
Wilcox said he has no intention of making money off Tampa's water. "The cost of this water, in terms of the customers, is a function of what it costs to transport it, store it and possibly treat it. That's it. There is no profit on top of that," he said. "We don't want a private water market."
A review board, he said, will approve all construction and purchasing contracts.
So far, that board includes only representatives of Mosaic, Tampa Electric and Hillsborough County. Others who contribute financially to the project might be added. Board meetings will not be open to the public.
"It's not conducive to business," Wilcox said.
However, an audit of money spent to date is due later this month, and Wilcox says all documents will be public record.
Meanwhile, Tampa still hasn't decided how much of its water to sell, or to whom.
The city's first goal is to use its reclaimed water to reduce drinking water consumption in Tampa, which hits about 80-million gallons a day, said Steve Daignault, the city's administrator of public works and utilities.
Reclaimed use lags
Under Mayor Dick Greco, the city began an ill-fated system to bring reclaimed water to South Tampa to water lawns.
The first customers received water in 2004, but fewer than expected have hooked up to the pipes, and the system is a financial drain. Iorio put the brakes on any expansion.
In 2005, she backed a plan by Tampa Bay Water to put reclaimed water into the lower Hillsborough River to offset increased withdrawals of drinking water upstream. But she withdrew her support under pressure from river advocates.
Two years ago, she announced she would go in search of "big users" in Tampa, such as Tampa International Airport.
And now, the WPI project is on the table.
Iorio needs to act fast.
Multiple bills were introduced this year in the Legislature on water reuse. Most went nowhere. But one led to an agreement by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to make recommendations about reclaimed water before next year's legislative session.
State Sens. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales and Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, back the WPI plan.
Wilcox said it is "healthy'' to have questions raised about something of this magnitude.
"You're taking the public's money and putting it into something that's not the usual way of doing business," he said. "The public ought to be curious."
Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.