CLEARWATER — The fate of Tampa's plan to convert highly-treated wastewater to drinking water will remain in limbo for a few more months after the Tampa Bay Water board voted Monday to delay a final vote until April.
For nearly four hours, the water agency's nine board members wrangled over a half-dozen areas in dispute.
They agreed to monitor how much future growth in Hillsborough County is served by Tampa's municipal water supply. They debated whether Tampa's recent request to seek state funding represented an attempt to go around the water agency formed twenty years ago. They settled on a roadmap that allows six or more board members to squelch the project after a year if their concerns aren't resolved.
Finally, they agreed to wait until attorneys for each government had added all the changes into a memorandum of understanding before taking a final vote at the board's April 18 meeting.
Afterward, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn expressed cautious optimism that the plan to further clean highly-treated reclaimed water by injecting it into the aquifer was on the right track.
"I think for the board members that are interested in a discussion and interested in answers, today was a good day," said Buckhorn, who didn't attend the meeting.
St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, who has led the opposition to the project, said that apparent consensus on previous areas of dispute is different than support for the overall project. She and other board members, including Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith, have concerns about possible health risks.
Rice also suspects that Tampa becoming self-sufficient in its water needs could unravel the three-county compact comprised of elected officials from Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.
"We still have a big discussion on whether this is ultimately good for Tampa Bay Water,'' Rice texted after the decision was made to delay the vote.
The board members agreed that it will take six of them agreeing to continue the project after 12 months. They also agreed to provide more data on how many new Hillsborough residents outside Tampa's municipal boundaries will be served by the city's water department.
Oakley pushed for both changes, saying he was worried that Pasco was at risk of being locked into an agreement that might benefit Hillsborough growth patterns more than his constituents.
"I just have a strong feeling that once we enter into an agreement like that we won't be able to get out of it," Oakley said.
Rice also questioned why local state Rep. Jackie Toledo recently filed a $1.6 million appropriations request for the project. Last year, Tampa asked the Legislature for authority to pursue the project on its own, which was denied.
"Tampa will move forward with this project regardless of what this board thinks or says," Rice said.
Tampa officials said the funding request was meant to supplement, not replace, money that would be provided by the Southwest Florida Water Management District also known as Swiftmud. Swiftmud's financial help needs Tampa Bay Water approval.
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Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters, a new board member whose vote will be crucial in April, said as a former state legislator she didn't see Tampa's request for state money to be an attempt to circumvent board authority.
"I didn't look at that as some kind of ' go around us' kind of thing," Peters said