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Water Wars starting to simmer again in Tampa Bay

Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda, who sits on the board of Tampa Bay Water, is unhappy with the agency's resistance to Tampa's plan to convert millions of gallons a day of highly treated reclaimed water into drinking water. [Times file 2015)
Published Feb. 19, 2018

CLEARWATER — A simmering feud between Tampa and the regional water authority avoided boiling over Monday, but little was resolved.

At a Tampa Bay Water meeting, board members requested Tampa work with the agency on the city's plan to convert tens of millions of gallons a day of highly treated reclaimed water into drinking water.

Hillsborough County has a similar program in the works.

Tampa Bay Water was formed in 1998 to put an end to the water wars in that decade, but Tampa's plan has stirred things up again. An attempt by Tampa to get the Legislature to settle the issue in its favor was scuttled last month. St. Petersburg officials have hinted at legal action. Pinellas County officials have said Tampa's plan could blow up the water agency.

Tampa Bay Water has said that Tampa's plan could threaten its debt obligations.

Monday's meeting didn't settle much of that discord.

Board members Charlie Miranda, a Tampa City Council member, and Pat Kemp, a Hillsborough commissioner, criticized the agency's stance. Miranda called it insulting.

That prompted another board member, Pinellas Commissioner Dave Eggers, to fire back.

"If they don't want it, we can just back away and not support it and continue along our merry way," Eggers said.

"Okay, let's not go too far," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who supports Tampa Bay Water's position.

But Murman's attempt at smoothing things over didn't completely take.

Tampa's water chief said after the meeting that Tampa Bay Water hadn't offered anything the city hadn't already informally agreed to do with Southwest Florida Water Management District —without Tampa Bay Water's help.

And Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said if the agency is trying to slow the city's plan to augment its water supply, the city isn't interested in playing along.

"This project has the potential to be a model for the nation by replenishing the aquifer and providing Tampa Bay Water's member governments with additional water sources they currently do not have. Rather than fear this, they should embrace it."

Chuck Weber, Tampa's water director, said diverting the 55 million gallons a day of highly-treated reclaimed water currently dumped into Tampa Bay would help the bay by removing trace nutrients. Pumping it nine miles north into the aquifer would help prevent saltwater intrusion, freshen up springs and guarantee the Hillsborough River doesn't run dry in droughts.

"These are all huge environmental benefits that go beyond what Tampa Bay Water sees as a drinking water issue," Weber said.

St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, another board member, agreed challenges like climate change loom. All the more reason for the agency's six-member governments to agree on the big picture stuff (Pasco County and New Port Richey are also members).

"This is a regional board with regional concerns," she said. "To tackle this, we all have to work together."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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