Editor’s note: This column was written by former Tampa Bay Water/West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority board members Sallie Parks (former Pinellas County commissioner and Group of 18 participant); Ann Hildebrand (former Pasco County commissioner); Susan Latvala (former Pinellas commissioner); Ted Schrader, (former Pasco commissioner); Ronnie Duncan (former Pinellas commissioner and former SWFWMD Governing Board member); Karl Nurse (former St. Petersburg City Council member); and Jerry Maxwell, who was general manager from 1995-2007.
Twenty years ago, Tampa Bay Water was created as the region’s sole and exclusive drinking water provider. The local governments that created Tampa Bay Water agreed on a vision — a single drinking water utility where voting power was balanced and everyone shared in the cost of water for the community and the environment.
The local governments negotiated in good faith, putting their regionally significant water supplies into the regional system for the good of the region. The City of Tampa was allowed a specific one-time exception for its historic use of the Hillsborough River, but it committed that its future needs would be met by the regional utility.
The creation of Tampa Bay Water has long been held as a model for regional cooperation, and its success is the region’s success. Our economy continues to grow because there is adequate water supply. Areas of environmental stress have recovered because we have a diverse, sustainable system. And when we all share the costs, water remains affordable.
So it is with great concern that many former leaders of Tampa Bay Water view the board’s coming Monday vote on Tampa’s proposed potable reuse project (TAP). If approved, Tampa will be able to fully self-supply using reclaimed water, but the unintended consequences could undermine the state’s only regional water success story.
Many believe the agreement will change the utility’s business model and restore disparities that Tampa Bay Water was formed to eliminate. If approved, the agreement allows a member to fully self-supply while still voting on matters in which it has no vested interest.
If approved, there is nothing to stop other member governments from following suit. Growing counties, like Hillsborough or Pasco, could argue the precedent allows them to self-supply.
Smaller governments like New Port Richey, or built-out governments, like Pinellas County and St. Petersburg, will be left with hundreds of millions in debt. And as Tampa Bay Water’s demand goes down, rates will go up for those left at the table.
Equally as important, there are too many unknowns related to TAP. The yield, cost, aquifer impacts and public acceptance have yet to be determined.
On the balance, there are many potential perils to a “yes” vote on TAP, but little risk to a “no” vote. TAP may be a viable option, but the only way to know and protect Tampa Bay Water is to make it a regional project. It could move forward with the other supply options, and once studies are completed, presented to the board with firm details.
The region has 10 years before new water supplies are needed, so there is plenty of time to work on regional solutions. We urge the board to take a bold policy position to protect Tampa Bay Water. Our economy, water supply and environment are too important to risk.