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Tampa lobbyists pushed for state law on Tampa wastewater discharges

The revelation confirms the suspicions of local environmentalists.
Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson, June 4, 2020. At a council meeting at the Tampa Convention Center.
Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson, June 4, 2020. At a council meeting at the Tampa Convention Center. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Dec. 7, 2022|Updated Dec. 9, 2022

TAMPA — Last week, when Tampa public works officials told skeptical City Council members that a new state law required the city to divert the 50 million gallons a day of highly treated reclaimed water it now dumps into Tampa Bay, they presented it as fait accompli.

In fact, city lobbyists helped craft the legislation that will require Tampa to find some other use for the wastewater by 2032.

Asked by the Tampa Bay Times during last week’s council meeting if the mayor’s office authorized city lobbyists to push for the state law, Lauren Rozyla, spokesperson for Mayor Jane Castor, said she would have to seek a legal opinion because it was “complicated.” Asked to confirm “yes or no” if the city lobbied for Senate Bill 64, which became law in 2021, the city didn’t respond until Monday, when it issued a lengthy statement.

It confirmed that the city had, in fact, lobbied for the law.

The city stated the legislation was a priority of Senate leadership and had strong bipartisan support.

“Considering the political momentum behind the legislation, the city of Tampa’s focus was on improving the text for the benefit of Tampa,” the statement reads.

It said the city lobbyists also worked to extend the deadline for project completion by four years and that the city received $1 million in state dollars to help with the transition.

“The city of Tampa, along with cities and organizations from across the state, supported the underlying goals of this legislation,” the statement read.

Phil Compton, a representative of Friends of the Hillsborough River, said environmentalists and neighborhood advocates thought the city had been hiding its hand.

“It’s something that has been suspected because of the city’s unwillingness to consider supporting efforts to improve the bill further,” Compton said when told of the city’s response to the Times’ inquiry.

Compton said a stakeholder coalition of the Sierra Club, Friends of the Hillsborough River, Tampa Homeowner Association of Neighborhoods and the League of Women Voters has asked the city for two years to ask the state for more time and flexibility for the required diversion.

“That would improve the one-size-fits-all approach of SB64,” Compton said. “It would allow Tampa more flexibility to meet this challenge.”

City Council member Bill Carlson, a strident critic of the city’s water reuse plan, originally intended to turn the wastewater into drinking water, had pressed city officials on Thursday as to whether city lobbyists worked behind the scenes to usher through the legislation.

In its most recent pitch. the Castor administration has proposed treating the reclaimed water further and diverting it to the Hillsborough River, a source of city drinking water.

On Wednesday, Carlson said Castor needs to abandon her water reuse plan, which the mayor has consistently listed as one of her legacy projects during her first term in office. Castor has also developed a relationship with former Senate President Wilton Simpson, inviting him to the mayor’s tent at Gasparilla early in her term.

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Carlson said the mayor needs to start listening to environmental and neighborhood leaders and working with Tampa Bay Water, the regional water utility to which the city belongs, to find a long-term solution for what to do with the wastewater that is not Castor’s current plan.

“I am glad that Mayor Castor finally admitted that the city of Tampa lobbied in favor of this,” he emailed. It’s a shame that the misguided goal to build this project has wasted millions in ratepayer money and countless hours of City Council and the community fighting this.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the title of former Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson.