CLEARWATER — Tampa Bay's third largest city was supposed to be the first in the state to treat wastewater beyond drinking standards and inject it into the Floridan aquifer so it would make its way back into the drinking supply.
The endeavor began in 2009 with a feasibility study, then a pilot facility that tested the technology for a year. By 2016 Clearwater was the first in Florida to design a full-scale groundwater replenishment facility, modeling it on a similar pioneering plant that launched in Orange County, Calif, in 2008.
Now after 10 years and an investment of $6.2 million, Clearwater has the final design and all permits needed to break ground, still ahead of any other city in the state.
But higher-than-expected building and operation costs have delayed construction indefinitely, making Clearwater the first to be stalled by the expense and unfamiliar terrain of what could be the next frontier of drinking water in Florida. Just building the plant is now expected to cost nearly $7 million more than what was estimated three years ago.
"Our goal and our expectation is we're going to build this facility, we're just delayed to make sure we've done everything possible to maximize the benefit and minimize the cost," said Public Utilities Director David Porter.
In the meantime, the City Council last week approved spending $2 million on a master planning study of the city's well fields, supply pipelines, treatment plants and distribution systems to determine overall needs. That study, which could take two years, coupled with forthcoming regulations from the state, will help determine the Clearwater project's next steps, Porter said.
There are no facilities yet in Florida turning wastewater into drinking water for consumers, but about a half dozen cities have completed pilot studies or are undergoing planning. The state doesn't yet have regulations to guide uniform permitting and construction on injecting treated wastewater into groundwater or surface water to then pull up for drinking or by pumping the treated water directly into a municipal supply without the environmental buffer step first.
Tampa is in the conceptual stage of a project that would pump treated wastewater in the aquifer and then release it into the Hillsborough River reservoir near the city's water plant. But that concept has not yet been approved by Tampa Bay Water, the regional authority that would have to sign off on the city's plan.
Other municipalities like Hillsborough County have cut back on dumping treated reclaimed water into waterways by pumping it into the aquifer for the purpose of creating a barrier to keep saltwater from migrating into the drinking supply. But that South Hillsborough Aquifer Recharge Program is not pumping the water underground for the purpose of pulling it up again as drinking water, said public utilities director George Cassady.
The goal of Clearwater's project was to take about a third of the roughly 8 million gallons of treated reclaimed water that is dumped every day into Tampa Bay and Stevenson Creek and use it instead for drinking. The facility was designed to purify the water far beyond federal drinking standards using microfiltration fibers smaller than human hair to capture solids and viruses; reverse osmosis to force the water through membranes to further remove contaminants; and ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide to disinfect and capture any remaining contaminants, including pharmaceuticals and endocrine disruptors.
A new well would inject the water into a lower zone of the aquifer where the city does not pull water from. It would take about 10 years for that water to migrate to the upper zone drinking supply, where it would be pulled up by a city well, treated again and sent to residents' homes, Porter said.
"This water as it comes out of this facility will be the most highly treated water that we have in the state of Florida when this facility is finished," Porter told the Environmental Advisory Board in 2017, one of dozens of public presentations made over the past decade.
With no regulations on the books for regulating drinking water reuse in the state, the Potable Reuse Commission formed last year "to move forward new policy and to update our regulations," said chair Lynn Spivey.
Spivey said the goal is to have recommendations finalized this year on permitting and treatment to be passed into law in 2020. But cost planning for utilities can be difficult.'
''We have the technology to remove everything of concern but to what end and what cost?" Spivey said. "How do you then work with the public to say we can remove that, but are you prepared for your water bill to go up by a factor of four?"
The process Clearwater's facility would use to treat the wastewater before injecting it underground creates a water so pure that minerals have to be put back in so the water does not erode the aquifer. It would then be treated again after being pulled up by city wells.
But that process comes with a huge price tag. In 2016 the Southwest Florida Water Management District agreed to pay $14.3 million of future construction of Clearwater facility, about half of the original $28.6 million estimate. The building estimate crept higher in 2017 to $32.6, and the city was responsible to cover its original half plus the overruns. And in 2018, costs rose again to $35.2 million, high enough to push staff to postpone construction, Porter said.
The facility would cost an estimated $2.93 million a year to operate, almost half a million more per year than projected in the 2014 analysis of the pilot facility, according to data provided by the city.
But beyond the cost, cities are also battling public perception and environmental concerns.
David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said the response to booming population growth should be to scale back development, not to look for alternative water sources to sustain overpopulation that is harming natural resources.
"Bringing more people to the state is not going to make the water supply problem go away," Cullen said. "When water shortages happen, its the ecosystem that gets the short stick. You get water guaranteed for development. It's the environment that suffers."
City Manager Bill Horne said he still considers Clearwater as being on the forefront of this technology, given the progress it has made in testing, planning and advocacy.
The $6.2 million spent so far is not in vain because it might not be on hold for good, he said.
"It was kind of an unprecedented effort to get at what is a very germane issue of how do we provide water for our constituents going forward," Horne said. "The groundwater replenishment facility was one of those ideas … but we have to be good stewards with something that started out being financially feasible and took a turn."
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.