CLEARWATER — Tampa's plan to turn highly treated wastewater into drinking water for the region's booming population was rejected Monday by a coalition of Pinellas and Pasco politicians who want more time to determine how the plan might affect their communities.
The Tampa Augmentation Project is perhaps the biggest project left on the desk of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn before he leaves office in May.
Buckhorn said after the vote that he's confident that the project ultimately will be approved and hopes to bring it back for another vote in December.
"The wheels of progress never move quickly, especially when some are throwing sand in the gears," Buckhorn said.
Tampa officials have said the whole region would benefit from their plan to inject up to 50 million gallons a day of wastewater into the underground water table to provide an added layer of cleansing for wastewater before it is pumped back up into reservoirs and, eventually, faucets and showers.
The highly treated treated wastewater now is dumped into Tampa Bay.
The project, Tampa argues, would help clean up damaging nutrients from Tampa Bay and make available tens of millions of gallons a day for all members of the Tampa Bay Water partnership — the cities of St. Petersburg and New Port Richey, and Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
But the proposal was met with suspicion, especially among the Pinellas partners on the board of the regional water supplier. Ultimately, a majority of Pasco County officials sided with the Pinellas contingent.
The 5-4 vote split along county lines. The three Hillsborough County board members — County Commissioners Sandy Murman and Pat Kemp along with Tampa council member Charlie Miranda — voted for the plan. They were joined by New Port Richey Mayor Rob Marlowe.
Voting against it were Pinellas County Commissioners Pat Gerard and Dave Eggers, St. Petersburg council member Darden Rice and Pasco County Commissioners Kathryn Starkey and Ron Oakley.
Rice and Eggers said they are troubled by recent discussions between Hillsborough County and Polk County about possibly supplying Polk with water generated from reclamation projects. Polk is not a part of Tampa Bay Water, created 20 years ago as a water wholesaler to put an end to regional "water wars."
Tampa officials weren't directly involved in the Polk talks but the discussions still don't sit well with elected officials from water-poor Pinellas County.
"Tampa Bay Water is highly regarded for solving our own water wars," Rice said. "It seems like our reward is that that water would go to Polk County."
Added Eggers, "I think there are a lot of questions. I just want to make sure this agency is protected.
The St. Petersburg City Council last month voted unanimously ito oppose the agreement with Tampa Bay Water, citing concerns that approving it would weaken the water agency and that Tampa's goals haven't been transparently disclosed to the other governments.
Buckhorn called Pinellas officials' focus on the Polk discussions "a Trojan horse," intended to sink the project.
Miranda, the Tampa council member Miranda, said the benefits to the Tampa proposal are obvious — a cleaner bay and a secure source of drinking water for the next half-century.
"The fears that are there are only fears, not reality," Miranda said.
Earlier this year, Pinellas and Pasco elected officials headed off an effort by Buckhorn to win approval for the project from the state Legislature.
Rice characterized Tampa's Tallahassee push as a "Legislative run around."
Tampa Bay Water should take more time to figure out the long-term consequences of allowing Tampa to proceed with its plans, she said.
"I just don't see what the rush is," she said.
Tampa's reclamation project is scheduled to come online by 2027. The Tampa Bay Water board agreed to keep studying the project.
Miranda said Monday's vote shouldn't be seen as a victory or a loss for anyone, but cautioned against more delays for a project that on the drawing board since Tampa Bay Water was created.
"The longer you wait," he said, "the more expensive things get."