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Is Tampa going its own way on toilet-to-tap?

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor hasn’t given up on the controversial program, but opponents are on high alert.
Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson opposes the city's plan to convert highly-treated wastewater to drinking water. He wants city Water Department officials to provide clarity on whether the plan is still alive. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

TAMPA — Is the city’s hot-button plan to convert highly-treated wastewater to drinking water really dead?

Or has it just slipped into stealth mode?

There isn’t a clear answer. But speculation has picked up, thanks to both a sentence in an obscure report submitted by Tampa to the regional water utility last month, and a bill currently winding its way through Tallahassee.

Tampa City Council members recently requested more information about the city’s intentions regarding its “Tampa Augmentation Project” — a plan that would turn up to 60 million gallons of reclaimed water dumped into Tampa Bay each day into drinking water instead, after additional purification.

Their request came after Council member Bill Carlson pointed to language in a report that seemed to indicate the city was moving forward with the plan.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 1656, which passed out of a Senate committee last week, would prohibit any city from being able to discharge reclaimed water into any surface waters in the state by 2026 — which happens to be the same year that Tampa officials have said their reuse project would be ready.

So if that bill becomes law, Tampa would need to find another use for those tens of millions of gallons of reclaimed water it dumps into Tampa Bay each day. Which is where Mayor Jane Castor’s re-use project could come in.

Castor has steadily maintained she remains interested in the $300 million augmentation project, which sparked strong protest from environmental activists and St. Petersburg city officials last year before the mayor pulled it from her proposed utility rate increase in September.

Related: What's next for Tampa's controversial plan to convert highly-treated sewage into drinking water?

A sentence in an annual report sent in January from Tampa to Tampa Bay Water raised eyebrows among opponents.

“The city of Tampa intends to implement the Tampa Augmentation Project that will eliminate its needs for wholesale water from the Tampa Bay Water system," read the line from page two of Exhibit K, an otherwise obscure annual report that City Council member Bill Carlson waved from the dais at the end of a Jan. 30 council workshop.

That sentence was a “human error" which has since been fixed, said Castor spokeswoman Ashley Bauman.

But not before Carlson persuaded his colleagues to have Tampa Water Department Director Chuck Weber appear Feb. 20 to explain what Carlson characterized as an apparent end run around city council wishes. Five members signaled their opposition to the project before Castor pulled the project last fall.

“I think the Water Department is acting in a rogue fashion,” Carlson said this week in an interview.

Tampa Bay Water officials said they were taken aback by the reference in the Tampa report.

“We were surprised to see city staff plans to build TAP since the project has not been funded or approved by the City Council. Until a policy decision is made to the contrary, Tampa Bay Water will meet the future water needs of all our member governments including the city," wrote Tampa Bay Water spokeswoman Michelle Stom in an email.

Stom said Tampa’s projections for future water demand don’t match previously submitted data.

“We are in the process of reviewing the report and will be reaching out to city staff to meet to go over the future demand numbers so we can complete our annual demand forecasting," Stom wrote last week.

Brad Baird, the city’s deputy administrator for Infrastructure and Mobility, said nothing has changed on the city’s end.

“The six options remain on the table,” he said last week, referring to a list of possibilities including the proposal that critics have dubbed “toilet-to-tap," which water officials presented to city council members last fall.

Weber is in the process of writing a memo to “clarify” the issue, Baird said. But the city isn’t trying to mislead or hide anything, he said.

Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, the Senate bill won approval from the Innovation, Industry and Technology Committee by a 8-1 vote.

Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican, is the bill’s sponsor. At a Feb. 4 hearing, he said with Florida’s population growing so quickly, the state couldn’t afford to keep wasting hundreds of millions of gallons of reclaimed water by flushing it into surface waters.

If the Legislature approves the measure, it would give the state Department of Environmental Protection jurisdiction over the ways to capture reclaimed water, which is sewage treated to such a high degree that it meets current environmental standards allowing it to be discharged into bays, rivers and the ocean.

Carlson said he hadn’t heard about Albritton’s bill, but said city officials didn’t have much influence over the Legislature.

He was encouraged, he said, by Castor’s Feb. 5 promotion of Jean Duncan to administrator of Infrastructure and Mobility, a city position which adds another layer of authority over the augmentation project.

“She is beloved by the community and is someone I trust,” Carlson said.

And Bauman said the overall goal is still to work together.

“Our administration fully intends to work collaboratively with both Tampa Bay Water and the Tampa City Council to find ways we can guarantee a cost-effective, safe and sustainable drinking water supply for generations to come,” Bauman wrote in an email.

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