Is Tampa's toilet-to-tap plan swirling down the drain?

Pinellas County commissioner Dave Eggers, who sits on the board of Tampa Bay Water,  had questions Monday about Tampa's proposed "toilet to tap'' plan. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times ]
Pinellas County commissioner Dave Eggers, who sits on the board of Tampa Bay Water, had questions Monday about Tampa's proposed "toilet to tap'' plan. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 17, 2018

CLEARWATER — Tampa's controversial plan to convert highly-treated wastewater into drinking water appears to be losing support among representatives from local governments who make up the board of Tampa Bay Water, the regional authority that would have to sign off on the city's plan.

At a meeting Monday, Pasco County officials, including Commissioners Kathryn Starkey and Ron Oakley, expressed larger concerns about the project than they had previously. The Pinellas delegation, led by St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, already is opposed.

Any agreement between the water authority and Tampa requires the support of a majority of the board's nine members, three each from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. After another discussion scheduled for next month, the board voted unanimously to take up the so-called "toilet to tap'' issue again in February.

Pinellas and Pasco members kept pressing Tampa water officials Monday about why Florida's third-largest city needs to further develop its own water supply and largely stop purchasing water from the authority. And why it wants to pursue the giant project by itself.

"This thing has been working for 20 years for a lot of people," said Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers of the authority, formed in 1998 to put an end to the "water wars" of the 1990s. "For the life of me, it just doesn't make any sense to me in any fashion."

Eggers — along with Rice, Starkey, Oakley and even Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman — questioned whether their approval would mean higher water rates for their constituents, cause unknown environmental hazards or possibly unravel the agency itself, leading to a return to a scramble for water supplies by governments across the region.

Tampa officials said its toilet-to-tap plan would only bolster the region's water resources by allowing Tampa to be virtually self-sufficient in water, freeing up water for needier Pinellas and Pasco counties.

They said eliminating the minimal nutrients the water currently discharges into the bay from its Howard F. Curren sewage plant, which first treats the sewage to a much-cleaner level than St. Petersburg, would help the environment.

And they said that extra water would keep Tampa Bay Water from having to build expensive new infrastructure to supply the three-county region's water needs, saving nearly $35 million.

On Monday, board members discussed the project for nearly four hours before voting to amend the proposed agreement to include written promises from Tampa officials that they wouldn't sell up to 50 million gallons a day of what was once sewage to other users or to claim environmental credits that could allow polluters to cancel out the touted environmental benefits of the conversion.

Tampa plans to end its legal discharge of its highly-treated wastewater into Tampa Bay, pump the wastewater deep into the aquifer to further purify it, then release it into the city's Hillsborough River reservoir near the city's water plant.

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Other than to rebut arguments that Tampa wanted to saddle the authority with debt and, perhaps, mingle its converted wastewater with supplies destined for Pinellas, Tampa officials appeared resigned to fight another day.

In contrast to previous meetings, Starkey raised several objections to the project, including that it might cut into funding for the other governments' water infrastructure needs by soaking up cash from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which said it plans to fund at least half the estimated $350 million project, expected to be ready in 2027.

"My intent would be that we keep Tampa Bay Water as strong as possible," Starkey said. "I don't think anyone wants us to chip away at what those who put this organization together intended it."