TAMPA — A citywide boil water notice remained in effect Tuesday following a large water main break at the David L. Tippin Water Treatment Facility, and it likely won’t be lifted until Thursday at the earliest, city officials said.
At the latest, it could be another 72 hours before workers confirm that water passing through the facility is safe for public consumption, Mayor Jane Castor said at a press conference Tuesday morning.
The water plant is, essentially, “ground zero for the entire city’s water treatment,” and also provides drinking water to roughly 20 percent of Hillsborough County residences outside city limits, she said. According to Hillsborough County’s Water Resources Department, those neighborhoods include Eastlake, Fairview, Herschel Heights, Pebble Creek, Palm River and Seaboard.
City officials first issued the notice Monday afternoon after a third-party contractor, Ch2M Hill, struck a water transmission main, causing the 36-inch, pressurized pipe to burst. The breach sucked the plant’s clean, treated water supply out into the city’s streets, flooding some areas like N 30th Street, north of E Sligh Avenue, knee-deep in drinking water.
As the night wore on, water pressure within city limits dipped down to just over 20 percent, Castor said. That’s the legal threshold at which boil water notices must be issued.
“The break was draining all of our water and we were getting to the point that, had they not been able to reroute as quickly as they did, we literally would have run out of water for the city last night,” Castor said at Tuesday’s press conference. “They had about one foot left in those tanks before they weren’t able to pump any more water out.”
It’s unlikely there is any contamination in the water supply, Castor said, but as a precautionary measure, all residents are being asked to disinfect their tap water to kill any possible bacteria.
Until the boil water notice is rescinded, the Tampa Parks and Recreation Department will distribute free bottled water to city residents from its emergency storm supply, Castor said.
City staff will distribute both bottled water and face coverings at the following four locations from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday:
- Himes Avenue Sports Complex: 4501 S Himes Ave.
- MacFarlane Park: 1700 N MacDill Ave. (Turn onto Main Street from MacDill Avenue. Distribution near the basketball courts.)
- Al Barnes Park: 2902 N 32nd St.
- New Tampa Community Center: 17302 Commerce Park Boulevard.
Bottled water is limited to one case per household, but households with more than four members may receive two cases, according to city officials. Residents can also pick up two free face coverings per person. No I.D. is required.
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Some Tampa area restaurants had to make changes Tuesday to keep food and customers safe, but Mari Crespo, an employee at Graze South Tampa, said customers have been understanding. At Graze, waiters only offer bottled water and did not use ice. They served coffee made from boiled water.
“Most of the customers are from the area so they already know,” Crespo said. “Some of them even bring their own bottled water.”
At Pure Kitchen, a vegan grab-and-go restaurant, the boil water notice hasn’t disturbed the cooking process because employees already used distilled water to soak beans, nuts and other ingredients, said owner Kyoko Faison.
About 60 public schools in Hillsborough County are affected by the water main break, said Erin Maloney, a spokeswoman with the school district. However, students haven’t been allowed to drink from water fountains since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and cafeteria employees are preparing grab-and-go sandwiches instead of foods that need to be prepared with water.
“The precautions we’re taking are already in place,” Maloney said.
AdventHealth Tampa activated emergency management protocols in the hospital, where patients were given bottled water to drink and departments had access to flushable water, said spokeswoman Ashley Jeffery. Additional measures are being used for emergency cases to prevent impacts to patient care, she said.
Tampa General Hospital had water delivered to its campus to meet operational needs, said spokeswoman Ellen Fiss.
“We are also making arrangements to deliver bottled water to all medical units for the next 24 – 48 hours,” she said in an emailed statement. “To minimize any risk of contamination, Tampa General is not allowing patients to bathe, drink or use the city water in any way. Patients will be supplied bottled water for their hydration needs for the duration of this boil water notice.”
There is one downtown business that won’t be boiling its water this week: The Florida Aquarium.
The more than 7,000 aquatic plants and animals that call the downtown facility home still depend on the city of Tampa to provide the roughly 500,000 gallons of water inside their tanks, Chief Operating Officer Andy Wood said. But once that water reaches the building’s pipes, it’s pumped through the aquarium’s filtration yard – a vast network of generator-backed pumps and reservoirs that “scrub” the water inside each exhibit every 70 minutes.
“We definitely try not to boil the tanks if we can help it,” Wood quipped.
When the city’s water pressure began dropping Monday evening, that system was still able to function with the already-treated water inside the aquarium’s vast reserve tanks, Wood said. And while the tap water in the building is still subject to the possible contamination, staff have relied on that clean water reserve to keep with the normal feeding schedule for the 14,000 land and water-dwelling animals inside.
“Maintaining consistent water quality inside the tanks is something we think about every day, and luckily we have a number of systems in place to prevent any disruptions from hurricanes or other disasters,” Wood said. “All the humans still have to use bottled water until this gets fixed, but we can keep the animals safe and healthy for as long as we need because we’ve been treating all of our own water all along.”
That system also allowed the aquarium to remain open to the public as normal on Tuesday while other local attractions were forced to shut their doors.
Busch Gardens closed the Tampa theme park early Monday because of the water issue. On Tuesday, the park remained closed.
“Access to safe, clean water is essential for park operation and safety, including a number of guest and employee needs and services,” said Rebecca Romzek, a spokeswoman with Busch Gardens Tampa Bay in an email. “While the City works to rectify the situation, our high-quality animal care remains constant as our zoo team utilizes safe alternative water resources, including well water, for all of our animal habitats.”
To safely use tap water at home, residents should bring water to a rolling boil and hold it at boil for a minute before consuming. It’s also safe to add 1/8th a teaspoon of bleach for one gallon of tap water, let it stand for 30 minutes, before drinking. Unscented household bleach is recommended. Water purification tablets and iodine commonly sold at camping and sporting goods stores is another safe alternative.
Just after 7 p.m. on Monday, the Tampa Water Department released a statement saying workers had “isolated the water main and shut down the flow of water in the area.” Crews worked through the night to fix the line, and repairs were expected to be completed sometime Tuesday night.
On Monday, residents were told to shut off all automatic irrigation meters and sprinkler systems in an attempt to conserve water. That was rescinded Tuesday.
Most precautionary boil water notices last for at least two days to allow for necessary testing and inspections from health officials, said Brad Baird, the city’s deputy administrator for infrastructure and mobility. A team of technicians are now working to collect water samples throughout the plant’s entire service area for laboratory testing, he said.
“Then those samples have to get clearance from the health department and then we’ll do that procedure all over again,” Baird said.
When every sample has been tested and cleared twice, the city will be allowed to lift its boil water notice.