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Reclaimed water key to serving more people

Some 30,000 people in Pasco and Hillsborough counties could be in line to get reclaimed water in the next decade under a plan endorsed Monday by Tampa Bay Water and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The plan would also produce an extra 14-million gallons of drinking water for the region by 2012 without tapping the underground aquifer, Tampa Bay Water officials say.

"This is quite a cutting-edge project," said Dave Moore, executive director of the water management agency, commonly called Swiftmud.

But it won't be cheap.

Engineers estimate that all the pipes and pumps needed to make the plan work will cost about $300-million. The two water agencies and the region's local governments would pay the bills using money from water ratepayers and taxpayers, but they hope to persuade Congress to cover half the cost with federal money.

Lining up the necessary permits and cooperative agreements among all the government agencies involved won't be easy either, said Tampa Bay Water executive director Jerry Maxwell.

"This is an incredibly complex thing we're trying to do here," Maxwell said. "We're going to have to go after this in a real careful, well-thought-out way."

Twice in recent years, Tampa Bay Water has sought the help of Swiftmud in paying for water projects involving desalination plants. But the first desal plant, the $110-million project in Apollo Beach, is tied up in a court battle between the utility and its contractor. The two sides are in mediation, but no settlement has been reached.

As a result, plans for the second desal plant, which would have been built at the mouth of the Anclote River near Tarpon Springs, have been shelved.

Instead, Tampa Bay Water is pursuing a plan to draw 14-million gallons of drinking water a day from the Alafia and Hillsborough rivers and the Tampa Bypass Canal, all in Hillsborough County. The utility would replace what it takes out of the canal or rivers with treated wastewater from Tampa's sewer plant.

The wastewater would be put into the waterways so the flow into Tampa Bay would not be harmed. No wastewater would mix with drinking water.

Swiftmud officials for years have been encouraging utilities, such as Tampa Bay Water, to find more uses for reclaimed water. At the height of the region's three-year drought, Swiftmud discovered to their dismay that more than 100-million gallons a day of reclaimed water was being dumped in the bay.

So, they were particularly enthusiastic about Tampa Bay Water's plan, which would also extend pipes 20 miles through northern Hillsborough to Pasco to provide reclaimed water to customers there for the first time.

Swiftmud also hopes to use some of the reclaimed water to replenish wetlands that were drained by past overpumping of the aquifer to supply drinking water to St. Petersburg and Pinellas County.

The only tense moment of an otherwise harmonious joint meeting between the two boards came when Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor asked Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio point-blank whether the city supported the plan.

Tampa's reclaimed water is key to making it all work, but in the past, the city and county tussled over it. The city is close to completing a costly project to pipe reclaimed water through South Tampa.

But Iorio, who two months ago was cautious about endorsing the plan, made it clear those conflicts are in the past. Tampa's reclaimed water "is a resource that needs to be utilized for the benefit of the whole Tampa Bay region," she said. "People want to make this happen."

Of course, Castor pointed out, Tampa stands to make money off the deal, since it will charge Tampa Bay Water for use of the reclaimed water.

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