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Tampa Mayor Jane Castor renews push for water reuse plan

Requests totaling $1.5 million for design and public engagement costs will be considered by a traditionally skeptical City Council on Thursday
Mist hovers at over the Hillsborough River dam at Rowlett Park near where the city plans to pump highly-treated reclaimed water to stabilize river levels and replenish Sulphur Springs as part of its updated plan to convert wastewater to water.
Mist hovers at over the Hillsborough River dam at Rowlett Park near where the city plans to pump highly-treated reclaimed water to stabilize river levels and replenish Sulphur Springs as part of its updated plan to convert wastewater to water. [ DENNIS JOYCE | Times ]
Published Feb. 1, 2022|Updated Feb. 1, 2022

TAMPA — It’s been a rocky road in Tampa for a series of ambitious proposals to turn reclaimed water into drinkable water.

But Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s administration is back with a plan it says will drought-proof the city, preserve Sulphur Springs and improve water quality in Tampa Bay.

And little if any of that reused water will ever come out of a tap in Tampa.

Three years ago, skeptical City Council members forced the newly-elected Castor to scrap a previous reclaimed water reuse project that would have turned about 50 million gallons of reclaimed water currently being flushed into Tampa Bay each day into drinking water. Joined by environmental groups, five of the seven council members voiced opposition to what critics derided as “toilet-to-tap.”

That plan is now officially dead, said Whit Remer, the city’s sustainability and resilience officer.

An updated plan, dubbed PURE (Purify Natural Resources for the Environment) received a cold shoulder from council members a year ago, forcing Castor to scale back a $10 million request to $650,000 for initial design costs and public engagement.

The new request is for roughly $1.5 million to design about a third of the project and to widen public engagement. It goes to the City Council for consideration on Thursday.

One option is to clean the reclaimed water further, inject it into the aquifer and then pump it into the reservoir on the Hillsborough River.

Instead of using it for drinking, the water will help keep the Hillsborough River at mandated levels during droughts and beat back creeping saltwater intrusion in Sulphur Springs. By reusing the highly-treated reclaimed water, the city also will avoid dumping about 50 million gallons of nutrient-rich discharge into Tampa Bay each day, said Remer.

The city will be required to stop dumping those 50 million gallons a day into the bay starting in 2032. But the law’s intent was to put “wasted water to beneficial use” Weber said. The city’s plan does that by replenishing Sulphur Spring and the Hillsborough River, he said. An added benefit will be removing excess nutrients from the bay, although the city’s daily discharge already meets environmental rules.

Another path would be to sell some of the cleaned-up water, send another portion into the river and inject the rest deep into the aquifer, said Brad Baird, the city’s deputy administrator of infrastructure.

Water Department director Chuck Weber said the city really doesn’t know how much the project will cost until it moves further along in the design stage. Thursday’s discussion will determine which way the city will proceed, further clarifying costs, he said. A rough ballpark figure is $500 million in capital costs, he said.

Three civic and environmental organizations, the Sierra Club Tampa Bay Group, League of Women Voters and Friends of the River of Hillsborough County have been meeting monthly with the city. All three groups sent a Jan. 21 joint letter to Castor saying they were “not opposed” to Thursday’s request.

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That’s a change from strong opposition previously from environmental protection advocates, but the groups said many questions remain before they can offer unqualified support, including data and more information on water quality, ratepayer costs and aquifer health.

“At each juncture, city staff should be required to come back to City Council to seek approval for the next step with supporting data to justify the need and the approach for which additional funding is needed. The state legislation has a 10-year compliance window and there is no need to rush this PURE project,” the joint letter stated.

Council member Bill Carlson has been the staunchest opponent of the administration’s water reuse plans since being elected in 2019. On Monday, Carlson voiced skepticism of the latest plan.

“Our number one job as elected officials is to protect the public from bureaucratic projects that will waste taxpayer dollars while putting at risk the health and safety of our community and environment,” Carlson said in a text.

No study has proved that the city or region will run out of water, Carlson said, and in past droughts cited by city officials in the 2000s, the water utility met the city’s needs, he said.

Weber and Baird said the repurposed reclaimed water would almost never enter the city’s drinking supply, but would be treated to drinking water standards.

The possibility that it will enter the drinking water supply, said Weber, would be “in very extreme conditions ... and would on the rare side of things,” he said.

Aside from Carlson, at least two council members still have concerns, although neither John Dingfelder or Joseph Citro said they’ll vote no on Thursday.

Citro said on Monday he still has concerns about trace pharmaceuticals and heavy metals entering the aquifer, but is open to hearing what everyone has to say.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story incorrectly indicated that the reservoir on the Hillsborough River is not part of the city’s water supply. Also, Brad Baird’s title was incorrect. He is the city’s deputy administrator of infrastructure.