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Tampa slows down on hot-button wastewater reuse project

The latest attempt to convert highly-treated sewage into usable water is scaled back, at least temporarily.
Chlorinated water flows over a weir at the Howard F. Curren Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. Tampa officials are talking about using reclaimed water - essentially, highly treated waste water that's nearly pure enough to drink - to augment water levels in the Hillsborough River and help stem rising salt levels in Sulphur Springs.
Chlorinated water flows over a weir at the Howard F. Curren Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. Tampa officials are talking about using reclaimed water - essentially, highly treated waste water that's nearly pure enough to drink - to augment water levels in the Hillsborough River and help stem rising salt levels in Sulphur Springs. [ CHRIS URSO | Chris Urso ]
Published Feb. 3
Updated Feb. 3

TAMPA — The first attempt to win City Council approval for a $300 million project to turn wastewater into drinking water failed in 2019.

A second push to convert roughly 50 million gallons a day of highly-treated sewage that currently flows into Tampa Bay into water clean enough to be added to the Hillsborough River hit a roadblock last month. At least two council members objected to a $10 million funding request that they said was rushed.

Related: Tampa renews push for wastewater reuse

That plan, dubbed Purify Natural Resources for the Environment, or PURE, was delayed until Thursday. Mayor Jane Castor said at the time, the three week delay would give the administration time to address concerns about the project.

But this week, a scaled-down request of $650,000 along with promises to engage an outside consultant and the public was placed on the City Council’s Thursday agenda.

Council member Bill Carlson, who along with his colleague, John Dingfelder, raised concerns in January about PURE, said he had been briefed by Castor officials and was happy that they appeared to be willing to slow down the project, slated to become operational in 2027.

But Carlson said he still planned to vote against the smaller request, since he doesn’t have guarantees that Castor’s team will do a complete analysis of other ways to use the highly-treated wastewater.

“We have to engage the public in a two-way conversation, not just on selling them on something,” Carlson said. “But, definitely, the administration is listening.”

Dingfelder, who had asked for independent review of the project, said he also appreciated the delay.

“I applaud them for slowing down a bit, especially applaud them for agreeing to a peer review by outside independent scientists,” he said.

Putting the PURE program on slow burn is the second setback in two years for water officials, who have worked for years on ways to reuse the tens of millions of gallons of highly-treated wastewater dumped into Tampa Bay each day.

The Tampa Augmentation Project or TAP, begun by former mayor Bob Buckhorn, would have converted the wastewater into drinking water. But that project was scrapped after five out of seven council members said they wouldn’t approve it during the 2019 budget negotiations.

PURE was meant to allay those concerns as water officials said the converted wastewater would be even more thoroughly cleaned before being added to the Hillsborough River so that water levels remained high enough for the city to draw on for its water supply all year, even during droughts. The increased water supply would also ease the rising salination levels in Sulphur Springs, officials said.

Jean Duncan, the city’s infrastructure and mobility director, said the city has decided to take a slower approach with the project.

“We are taking a more incremental approach with the project and are restructuring our cooperative funding application with (the Southwest Florida Water Management District),” Duncan wrote in an email, adding that the $650,000 request would pay for the outside review, public engagement and some design costs.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the city didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday.