Future unclear for Tampa’s divisive plan to turn wastewater into drinking water

Mayor Jane Castor pulled the $300 million plan so she could push through her ambitious infrastructure plan in September. Is it dead for good?
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, shown here at a construction site in November, might need a hard hat to protect her against critics if she decides to bring back the city's divisive plan to convert highly treated wastewater into drinking water.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, shown here at a construction site in November, might need a hard hat to protect her against critics if she decides to bring back the city's divisive plan to convert highly treated wastewater into drinking water. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2019

TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor inherited a big-ticket project that some call transformational and others calamitous.

Over the next few months, Castor may fight to preserve what city water officials call the Tampa Augmentation Project and critics have dubbed it toilet-to-tap. Or she could consign it to the dustbin of once-big ideas.

On the campaign trail and in her first months as mayor, Castor talked up the merits of the $300 million project championed by former mayor Bob Buckhorn to convert highly treated reclaimed water into drinking water.

But as a City Council vote approached in early September, the mayor pulled it, out of concern it might sink her overall $2.9 billion infrastructure plan.

RELATED: Jane Castor puts wastewater conversion project on hold

Her decision cheered opponents like some environmentalists and the city of St. Petersburg, which saw Tampa’s attempt to become self-sufficient with its potable water supply as a threat to regional cooperation.

But has Castor given up on using up to 60 million gallons of highly treated wastewater it dumps into Tampa Bay each day to slake the thirst of a growing city?

She has avoided taking a definitive position so far. Instead, she has emphasized the need for Florida’s third-largest city to expand its water supply.

RELATED: Environmentalists happy that Tampa scraps TAP

“The provision of high quality water to the entire Tampa Bay region is one of the most critical issues we will face moving into the future," she said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “In order to meet this growing demand for water we must explore all environmentally friendly and scientifically proven alternative sources, while focusing on conservation."

The need to guarantee an adequate water supply is what shifted the thinking of council member John Dingfelder. He was one of five council members who voted to oppose the plan in August.

Then at a Nov. 7 council meeting, opponents and supporters both noticed that Dingfelder said he hadn’t taken a formal position on the project and hoped some resolution could be reached.

This week, he said he hasn’t decided whether he supports the project and is open to discussing it further.

“We need to come up with an answer. We can’t just not do anything,” he said.

If the project wins Dingfelder’s support, bringing it back to life will require one additional council member to switch votes. Other council members who voted against the plan were Bill Carlson, Guido Maniscalco, Orlando Gudes and Joe Citro.

Gudes said this week he hasn’t changed his position yet. Citro said the same.

Carlson led the fight against the plan. He said Tampa’s long battle to get the project approved by Tampa Bay Water, the regional water utility, damaged regional trust and upset partners like St. Petersburg. The battle included an unsuccessful attempt in early 2018 to have state lawmakers pass a circumventing law.

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The South Tampa council member said he thinks the city should give up trying to advance the reuse project.

“The public doesn’t want it and we don’t need it. Why waste the money on it," Carlson said.

Kent Bailey, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Tampa Bay Group, said he’s open to other methods of converting highly treated sewage to tap water.

One way, Bailey said, would be expanding the city’s reclaimed water supply through a separate piping system to replace the potable water currently being sprinkled on lawns. Another would be to pursue what he calls the safer, though more expensive, option of reverse osmosis — where reclaimed water is further cleaned by passing at high pressure through a membrane.

But the city’s plan to inject reclaimed water into the aquifer concerns him because it might contain pharmaceuticals and other contaminants.

“Injecting this stuff into the aquifer puts it beyond our reach,” Bailey said.

City water officials have said that extensive testing has shown no appreciable level of pharmaceuticals or other man-made chemicals in converted wastewater. The city would pump the reclaimed water into injection wells then withdraw and treat it with ultraviolet disinfection.

If Castor does decide to revive the project, it likely faces stiff political odds. Guido Maniscalco, who voted against it this summer and still opposes it, says the political landscape hasn’t shifted.

“There is no reason for them to switch their votes," he said. “Nothing else has come forward. I thought it was dead and done.”