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Clearwater's first of its kind project in Florida gets $1 million public relations effort

Published Oct. 5, 2016

CLEARWATER — It's one of the city's most innovative projects, but it could take seven figures to break through the stigma and skepticism around it.

Clearwater is the first city in Florida and one of only a handful in the United States to launch a groundwater replenishment facility that will purify wastewater to drinking standards and inject it back underground into the aquifer.

Now in the design stage after seven years of study, the roughly $32 million plant could be running at the Northeast Water Reclamation Facility off McMullen-Booth Road by 2020.

But with the novelty comes unfamiliarity, and other communities that have pioneered the technology have had to battle the "toilet to tap" misnomer and environmental fears groundwater injection poses.

"It's not a glamorous, glitzy item, it's not covered in the news a lot, there's no dramatic TV show about water treatment, so there's not a lot of awareness about what we're doing," engineering manager Rob Fahey said.

To educate the community about this little known technology, the city has launched a $1 million outreach campaign that will continue well after the facility is built. The city will spend about $500,000 on brochures, community meetings, online videos, utility bill stuffers and other public relations on the front end and the rest on site tours for the public and school outreach once the facility is running.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District will pay for half of the construction costs and will also split the $1 million outreach budget.

The goal of the project is to help preserve water at a time when population and demand are causing an ever-growing strain on resources, said public utilities director David Porter.

Currently Clearwater discharges almost 3 million gallons of highly treated wastewater a day into Old Tampa Bay after supplying about 9 million gallons of drinking water to residents and another 4 to 5 million gallons of reclaimed water for irrigation.

The facility will take wastewater being treated for irrigation at the Northeast Water Reclamation Facility and push it through a microfiltration process, reverse-osmosis system and ultraviolet light to remove all viruses, drugs, solids and other pollutants.

The water will be clean enough to drink then and there, but it will flow through new injection wells back into the Floridan Aquifer, replenishing Pinellas County's stressed groundwater supply and eventually making its way to residents' faucets.

Although he's on board with the effort to save water, Tim Martin, conservation chair of the Suncoast Sierra Club, said environmentalists want oversight to ensure the water going into the aquifer is safe.

Martin said he'd like to see Clearwater's project monitored by an independent, outside agency, which could conduct regular testing on the treated wastewater before injection.

With recent environmental disasters like the sewage spill in St. Petersburg after Hurricane Hermine and the sinkhole at Mosaic phosphate processing plant near the Hillsborough-Polk county line, which poured hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated water into the earth, Martin said caution has to be a priority.

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"I would want to be assured that whatever we're injecting is not going to make things worse," Martin said. "I don't have full faith even that our government is an adequate watchdog. I would really stress again the need for independent verification that what we're doing is safe for our water supply."

Porter said there will be several safeguards in place to ensure the water being injected underground is safe, and a second-party check before injection wouldn't be practical.

The facility will have manual lab checks along with automatic monitoring devices that test the water as it's being treated and concurrently injected underground.

Water safety of the design was vetted in a small-scale pilot plant that was built in 2013 and ran for a year as a testing phase. And before the facility is constructed, Porter said the city has to pass strict safeguards to be granted a permit from Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The city plans to share these assurances with the public during the outreach campaign, including several townhall meetings. But it appears there's much for the public to learn about local water sources.

In a poll of 384 Clearwater residents commissioned in August for the groundwater replenishment project, surveyors found 55 percent were unsure of where tap water comes from; only 20 percent knew the Floridan Aquifer was a source of tap water; and 10 percent believe tap water comes from treatment plants. Only four out of ten Clearwater residents believed there would be enough water to meet demand in 10 years but more than half were unfamiliar with "purified reclaimed water."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.