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Tampa’s ‘water wizard’ Dave Tippin dies at 82

He modernized the city’s water supply as the head of the department.
Former Water Department director Dave Tippin talks about his days at the Water Works building that is now the Ulele restaurant. At one time it was the building he worked out of at Water Works Park.
Former Water Department director Dave Tippin talks about his days at the Water Works building that is now the Ulele restaurant. At one time it was the building he worked out of at Water Works Park. [ TAMP | 2014 ]
Published Jul. 25

In the 1970s, residents of Tampa’s Davis Islands turned on their faucets and often found red liquid pouring out from the unlined cast iron pipes. Dave Tippin had a plan to fix it.

In 1977, for $129,000, the city’s water department director launched a plan to introduce a chemical that would reline the pipes over two years. The process would add 75 years to the 50-year-old pipes, the Tampa Times reported.

It was an approach Tippin took again and again — fix, preserve, plan ahead.

Twenty-six years later, in 2003, the Tampa Tribune reported “Tampa’s water wizard retires.”

“For nearly 30 years, a generation of Tampa residents has grown up drinking water Dave Tippin was in charge of producing. Most probably never thought about the water coming from their faucets, which is the way it should be.”

If you know Tippin’s name, it’s likely because of the building named after him — the David L. Tippin Water Treatment Facility. For 29 years, he led Tampa’s water department, helping transform the system that brings water to the city and the quality of the water itself.

Tippin died July 13 at 82 of natural causes.

From the Tampa Times, Feb. 25, 1977.
From the Tampa Times, Feb. 25, 1977. [ Via newspapers.com ]

Water works

In his hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky, Tippin grew up spending Saturday mornings playing at the city’s municipal utility department while his father worked. As a kid, he already knew what all the equipment was for. By his senior year in high school, Tippin knew what he wanted to become and spent every afternoon after school watching engineers design highways.

But water flowed in his future. Early in his career, Tippin traveled the country with the Ductile Iron Pipe Research Association, working with water engineers and water utilities. When his oldest son was 5, Tippin figured he shouldn’t travel so much. So in 1974, at 34, he moved his family to Tampa. Tippin started and ended his career working with former mayor Dick Greco, who served from 1967 to 1974 and 1995 to 2003.

Tippin worked in a way that was beyond politics, Greco said, with a focus on what was right both in the present and in the long term. And in an era when technology was rapidly changing how city’s water operated, Tippin blended new technology with historic preservation.

In 1975, he replaced the city’s water meters, which had 50 to 100 parts, with meters that had just three. In the early 80s, he helped the city switch from steam to electric to run the water plants. A grass control experiment using goats didn’t go so well thanks to the plant’s spot on the river (and the alligators who live there.) And Tippin led the restoration of Tampa’s historic water treatment plant, said former Tampa mayor and former Florida governor Bob Martinez.

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“I think he knew every foot of pipe that was out there.”

Former City Commissioner Linda Saul-Sena, right, presented a key to the City to Dave Tippin, left, who retired after 29 years as director of Tampa's water department in 2003.
Former City Commissioner Linda Saul-Sena, right, presented a key to the City to Dave Tippin, left, who retired after 29 years as director of Tampa's water department in 2003. [ TAM | 2003 ]

Stick to it

“Tippin, a bear of a man – though some say of the teddy variety – can be gruff and sometimes intimidating,” the Tribune reported in 2003. “That could be what led to his self-dubbed nickname, the Water Troll.”

And it’s what made his dad successful, said Brad Tippin, who followed his dad’s public service career and now works as the development review manager for Pasco County.

“He didn’t play things under the table. He would respectfully let you know what he was thinking.”

Brad Tippin and his brother, Rew Tippin, learned to arrive at school early. If you’re on time, you’re late, Tippin taught them. He showed up for their games and shows and insisted they stick it out when they were ready to quit. Tippin attended art shows featuring his wife, Nancy, and volunteered at their church, Palma Ceia United Methodist.

And when his aunt passed away, leaving behind a small farm in Kentucky, Tippin organized the family to keep the farm running, with the proceeds from the crops benefiting the next generation.

His approach was consistent — fix, preserve, plan ahead.

Pictured from left in 2014, Ron Black and Dave Tippin, former City of Tampa Water Department employees, toured the brewery at the Ulele restaurant that at one time was the building they worked out of at Water Works Park.
Pictured from left in 2014, Ron Black and Dave Tippin, former City of Tampa Water Department employees, toured the brewery at the Ulele restaurant that at one time was the building they worked out of at Water Works Park. [ TAMPA | 2014 ]

Water’s way

Tippin “taught us how to handle water,” said Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda.

The lesson — don’t think about yesterday or today, but the future.

The many accolades Tippin earned — a lifetime membership in the American Water Works Association, that organization’s Fuller Award for distinguished service, his travels around the world to teach other cities what worked in Tampa, his testimony to Congress on water quality standards — might not matter to most people. But Tippin’s work in creating safe, clean water does.

“To me, the crown jewel of his accomplishments would be implementing Water Quality 2000, and that is when he headed up a $50 million design-build project to improve the quality of water at the time at the Hillsborough River Treatment Facility,” said Brad Baird, Tampa’s deputy administrator of infrastructure and director of the water department from 2006 to 2014.

“For anybody that’s been here for a long time,” Baird said, “the improvement in taste was not subtle.”

The man who ran Tampa’s water department for 29 years was a caretaker, said Martinez. A calm collaborator, said Miranda. A public servant, said his son.

“Every time you turn on the faucet,” Martinez said, “that was David Tippin.”

A memorial service for Dave Tippin is planned for 2 p.m. Aug. 18 at Palma Ceia United Methodist Church. It is open to the public.

This aerial photo hangs in the hall of the David L. Tippin Water Treatment Facility in Tampa.
This aerial photo hangs in the hall of the David L. Tippin Water Treatment Facility in Tampa. [ TAM | 2008 ]

Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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