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Tampa renews push for reusing wastewater

More than a year after scrapping a controversial toliet-to-tap plan, the city has a new proposal.

TAMPA — Out with the TAP, in with the PURE.

It’s been more than a year since Tampa gave up trying to sell a plan — dubbed the Tampa Augmentation Project or TAP — to convert wastewater to drinking water in the face of environmental and City Council opposition.

The struggle to persuade critics to get over their aversion to a project they dubbed “toilet-to-tap,” has taken on a new dimension and a new acronym — PURE — to stand in for a program that promises to “purify usable resources for the environment.”

There are some key differences between the old and new plans. PURE proposes to clean sewage to drinking water quality before injecting into the aquifer, something that critics feared TAP wouldn’t do.

And the final product will be dumped into a reservoir on the Hillsborough River below the intake for the city’s water supply, meaning the converted wastewater would only likely enter the city’s water supply during periods of drought when the water didn’t flow over the dam downstream from the David L. Tippen Water plant.

The extra 50 million gallons a day, on average, would replenish the water levels in the river and help wash out the creeping salination of Sulphur Springs, issues that city officials said concerned the Southwest Florida Management District, the agency that controls the city’s permit. That permit is up for renewal in 2023.

Having enough water in the river, even during droughts, would allow the city to continue to draw from it throughout the year, another benefit. And eliminating tens of millions of gallons of highly-treated sewage from being discharged into Tampa Bay is another bonus.

The City Council will be asked to approve a $10 million reallocation within the Water Department’s budget on Thursday to fund the project.

It’s not a done deal. Five council members opposed TAP in 2019, dooming that $300 million project. And the leader of that opposition effort, Bill Carlson, opposes the new version.

Carlson believes the water department isn’t being transparent enough with the public and may be trying to get the money to build a project that can be converted to a drinking water substitute down the road.

“We should slow down and let this be a beginning of a robust public engagement process,” Carlson said. “They started this process during a holiday season and are only going to have this at one meeting without any public education and meetings. When the public finds out afterward they’ll be angry.”

Tampa Bay Water, the regional water utility that includes Tampa, has been briefed on the project, but hasn’t taken a position yet.

“As with any water project in the region, Tampa Bay Water’s interests remain that any project 1) is consistent with our Interlocal Agreement and 2) has no adverse effect to the regional water supply system,” wrote agency spokeswoman Michelle Stom. “We look forward to finding out more about the technical, legal and permitting details.”

Another factor is a Senate Bill 64, filed last week by Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican, that would require all wastewater utilities to inform the state by November of how they plan to eliminate all discharges into surface waters within five years.

Tampa Water Department Director Chuck Weber said for Tampa to develop an alternative to discharging its cleaned wastewater into the bay is made more timely by the bill, a version of which was also filed last year.

“That’s certainly an advantage of this project,” he said.

But the drivers of the effort are to find a way to clean up the salination of Sulphur Springs and maintain minimum flows in the river, both of which are accomplished by PURE, Weber said.

He said the project, if approved and partially funded by the water management district, would be ready by 2027.

By adding water to Tampa’s supply, it frees up water for other regional governments, Weber said.

St. Petersburg had opposed Tampa’s earlier plan, fearing environmental damage and Tampa’s possible exit from the regional water compact if it achieved water independence.

The new proposal shouldn’t raise the same fear, Weber said.

“It supports the region, which makes it a regional project,” he said.

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