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Attorney says city of Tampa can’t use reclaimed water for drinking supply

St. Pete Councilwoman Darden Rice says this should be ‘the nail in the coffin’ for the controversial proposal, but Tampa Councilman Charlie Miranda disagrees
Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda does not believe the memo ends Tampa's chances for building its controversial Tampa Augmentation Project . [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

A controversial plan by the city of Tampa to produce 50 million gallons a day of drinking water by pumping treated wastewater into the Floridan aquifer may have run into an insurmountable legal problem.

A memo from one of the attorneys who oversaw the formation of the Tampa Bay Water regional utility says only Tampa Bay Water can use treated wastewater for anything other than watering lawns. That means Tampa could not legally go forward with using reclaimed water for any other purpose, according to the memo.

“It seems clear that the parties intended to limit the use of reclaimed water by the member governments to irrigation and other non-potable purposes and for Tampa Bay Water to have the exclusive right to utilize reclaimed water for potable purposes,” attorney George Nickerson wrote in the Aug. 5 memo to Tampa Bay Water officials.

“This should be the nail in the coffin” for Tampa’s reclaimed water project, said St. Petersburg Councilwoman Darden Rice, a Tampa Bay Water board member who has repeatedly raised questions about Tampa’s plans.

“In a common-sense world,” she said, no one would want to spend another dime pursuing it.

She also predicted the memo would also save Tampa Bay Water from being torn apart by Tampa trying to launch a water supply venture on its own.

However the most vocal proponent of what the city calls the Tampa Augmentation Project, Tampa Councilman Charlie Miranda, pooh-poohed those comments.

“Attorneys are like tires,” he said. “Once in a while one of them will go flat.”

Multiple attorneys have looked at Tampa’s proposal, he pointed out, but this is the first one to say Tampa is legally prevented from attempting it. In fact, city attorney Gina Grimes questioned Nickerson’s analysis.

“It is our position that Tampa Bay Water’s legal opinion is incorrect as it applies to the City of Tampa,” she wrote in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “There are provisions in the Interlocal Agreement granting Tampa an exception to the exclusivity clause. It appears that exception was not fully considered in the opinion and we are preparing a formal legal response.”

Tampa Bay Water is the regional wholesale utility created in 1999 to end the notorious water wars of that decade. Rice and other Tampa Bay Water officials have said they worry Tampa’s project is the first step in trying to break up the utility, but Tampa officials have denied that is their goal.

The Tampa Augmentation Project 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.

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.

The Howard F. Curren sewage treatment plant. [Times]

Tampa officials say that eliminating the minimal nutrients the water currently discharges into the bay from its Howard F. Curren sewage plant would help the environment. They also said the plan would 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.

But leaders of local chapters of the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters have strongly urged the Tampa Bay Water board to reject Tampa’s proposal. They have complained about a lack of transparency, a lack of scientific studies of the potential effects and what they perceived as a rush to gain approval.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who succeeded Buckhorn, has said she also supports the treated wastewater project. But she sounded a noncommittal note Tuesday, releasing a statement that said, in its entirety, "I am fully committed to working with Tampa Bay Water and regional partners to find sustainable solutions to meet our future water needs while protecting water flows in the Hillsborough River.”

Last month Castor was forced to pull a $661,105 request for public outreach funding for the project from the City Council’s agenda when it became clear she didn’t have the votes to get it passed.

Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.