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  1. Environment

Tampa's 'toilet-to-tap' plan faces indefinite postponement

Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda. [Times (2011)]
Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda. [Times (2011)]
Published Jun. 21, 2019

CLEARWATER — It was supposed to be a routine discussion about money.

Tampa Bay Water's board was voting on an agreement to give Tampa $1.6 million last week to study the feasibility of a controversial plan to use reclaimed water to augment the city's drinking water supply. The deadline for getting that done would be next year — but then Tampa officials sought an extension to 2021.

As soon as eight of the board members cast their vote, though, the ninth member, Tampa City Councilman Charlie Miranda, made an announcement: He was pulling the plug on the whole thing.

"I'd like to ease all minds," Miranda said June 17th. "The city of Tampa would like to withdraw from further consideration the pending … memorandum of understanding and agreement."

The city will proceed with its studies alone, he said. Once its plans are 60 percent complete "then the city of Tampa will return" to seek Tampa Bay Water's input.

The Tampa Augmentation Project, or TAP for short, was a top priority for former Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who left office in May. Tampa officials have said the whole region would benefit from their plan to inject up to 50 million gallons a day of treated wastewater into the underground water table to provide an added layer of cleansing before it is pumped back up into reservoirs and, eventually, faucets and showers.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said this is not the end of the program, just a delay.

"We are absolutely still doing TAP — we have studied this process for years and we believe it is in the best interest of our entire region," she said Friday. "However, we will continue to evaluate this project against other options as we proceed."

Critics have dubbed the $350 million project — expected to come online in 2027 — "toilet to tap." It has faced a string of delays over unanswered questions about whether it would work and whether it would cause harm to the environment.

Leaders of local chapters of the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters have strongly objected to Tampa's proposal. They complained about a lack of transparency, a lack of scientific study of the potential effects and what they perceive as a rush to gain approval.

Facing such opposition, and with distrust rising among their own ranks, water board members postponed a scheduled October vote on the project until February. In February they postponed it until April. And then in April, on a motion by St. Petersburg council member Darden Rice, they voted to postpone it until June 2020 to give the Tampa time to do a feasibility study.

Rice's motion in April said the board would support Tampa's attempt to get $1.6 million from the Legislature to pay for the study, and if that fell through, then Tampa Bay Water would provide the money itself. Tampa would provide a matching amount. The Legislature did not provide the money, and neither did the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

So on Monday, the utility board was supposed to vote on the $1.6 million. But Tampa officials wanted to push the deadline for completing the feasibility study to 2021, and Tampa Bay Water board members questioned whether Tampa would share the scientific and financial information.

"You've provided no rationale for why you need more time," Rice said during Monday's meeting.

Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers complained about what appeared to be the ongoing animosity between Tampa officials and the staff of the region's wholesale utility.

"God bless America, we're in this thing together!" Eggers barked. "Start acting like it!"

Rice made a motion to stick to the 2020 deadline, and when eight board members voted yes, Miranda interrupted the vote to announce the withdrawal. That sparked a lengthy discussion about whether the vote had gone through or not, and ultimately the board voted a second time. This time, instead of interrupting, Miranda just voted no.

Times reporter Charles Frago and senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.comr . Follow @craigtimes.

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