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Tampa looking at long-range project to turn reclaimed water into drinking water

Published Apr. 19, 2015

TAMPA — To grow, Tampa needs water.

To get more of it, the city is looking at 60 million gallons of reclaimed water a day that it now discharges into Tampa Bay.

"We're just dumping it into the bay now," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "I want to find a way to either monetize it or do good by the environment."

So Buckhorn's administration is looking at building a pipeline to pump about a third of that water from the city's sewage treatment plant at Port Tampa Bay north to areas along the Tampa Bypass Canal.

There, the reclaimed water would be pumped either into wetlands or "rapid infiltration basins." From each, it would seep into the ground, a process that would be expected to reduce further the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus it carries, and eventually make its way into the bypass canal, one of the city's sources of drinking water.

This project is still in its early stages. To start, the city plans to create an experimental 1-acre basin. Long-range costs could reach $260 million — $120 million for the pipeline from the port to the basins, $25 million for a storage and pump station and $10 million to buy land. City Hall has lobbied the Legislature to kick in $2.5 million for the $3 million pilot project.

And what happens if the Legislature, deadlocked on much bigger budget issues than this, doesn't come through?

"We'll continue to look for funding sources and plan with the resources that we have," city spokeswoman Ali Glisson said.

While new, this project is one in a series of initiatives that go back decades.

Before 1950, Tampa had a sewage collection system along Bayshore Boulevard that discharged into the bay.

The city built its first sewage treatment plant at Hookers Point around 1950 and upgraded its process to advanced treatment in 1979. The Howard F. Curren Advanced Waste Water Treatment Plant cost more than $90 million, making it even more expensive (at the time) than Tampa International Airport, Tampa administrator of public works and utility services Brad Baird said. When it opened, officials celebrated with sips of treated effluent from champagne glasses.

Since then, Tampa has treated up to 60 million gallons of waste water a day, sending most of it into Tampa Bay. There, the reclaimed water has vastly improved the quality of the bay, reducing the number of algae blooms and allowing sea grasses to grow back.

The city sends about 3 million gallons of reclaimed water a day to South Tampa customers for irrigation. More is used by industry in the port or at the treatment plant itself, but most goes into the bay.

In August, when Tampa Bay Water, the regional drinking water supplier, started to update its long-term master water plan, the agency's board asked staffers to look at the potential of water reuse projects such as Tampa's.

But it is early in that review, said Alison Adams, Tampa Bay Water's chief technical officer. The 20-year plan won't be finished until December 2018, so the agency has time to consider the cost of Tampa's project, how much water it might yield and the regulatory requirements, "which are numerous and still not really clear," she said.

"There's a lot of issues to work through," Adams said.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, likewise is interested in using water efficiently and might help the city on the project — "if the science supports it," according to Swiftmud spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh. Ultimately, it would be up to Swiftmud's governing board whether to participate.

In the 1990s, a city project similar to what Tampa is considering now was looked at by the agency that preceded Tampa Bay Water, which ended up going with the huge reservoir in southern Hillsborough County and the desalination plant on Tampa Bay.

The current approach is similar to efforts — sometimes called "toilet to tap" — done elsewhere.

The Orange County, Calif., water system pumps wastewater that has been treated to exceed state and federal drinking water standards 13 miles to three recharge basins to replenish groundwater.

Similarly, the Upper Occoquan Service Authority, created by Fairfax and Prince William counties in Virginia, has used a 54 million-gallon-per day treatment plant to make reclaimed water part of the Washington, D.C., metro area's drinking water supply.

"The water coming out of that plant looks like a Coors beer commercial," Baird said.

"This is not new," he said of the city's project. "We want to see if it's the right thing to do for Tampa and the Tampa Bay area."

Tampa can take up to 82 million gallons of water a day from the Hillsborough River reservoir, and it can pump up to 40 million gallons of water a day from the bypass canal to augment the reservoir during the mid-March to mid-June dry season, when the reservoir level starts to drop.

The city estimates its augmentation project could reduce the amount of nitrogen dumped in the bay by 24 tons a year, possibly increase the flow of the Hillsborough River and create an alternative water supply source.

"A nice legacy," said Buckhorn, now starting his second four-year term. "I think it's a project that not only would guarantee Tampa's drinking supply, but would be hugely helpful for the environment. It's one of the things I'd really like to get done — or at least started — before I leave."

Contact Richard Danielson at