Tampa City Council votes to continue to explore wastewater reuse options

The 6-1 vote came after several council members said they were torn about how to proceed on the controversial project.
Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco said he would support Mayor Jane Castor's controversial water reuse plans despite public skepticism, but said he would reevaluate as the project progressed.
Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco said he would support Mayor Jane Castor's controversial water reuse plans despite public skepticism, but said he would reevaluate as the project progressed. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Feb. 3, 2022|Updated Feb. 3, 2022

TAMPA — After an hour of discussion Thursday about Mayor Jane Castor’s latest attempt to reuse city wastewater, council member Guido Maniscalco summed up the mood of many of his fellow board members.

“I really don’t know what to do here,” he said.

Castor wants to spend $1.4 million exploring how to reuse 50 million gallons a day of highly treated wastewater currently being dumped into Tampa Bay.

Almost all of the more than dozen public speakers came out against the plan. Council members had received more than 100 emails opposing the project, he noted.

“I haven’t had a single person tell me to support this,” Maniscalco said, referring to residents.

But, Maniscalco said, he was willing to vote for the initial funding to find out more about the potential safety and environmental concerns raised by the public and the hesitant, qualified support from key environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Friends of the River and the League of Women Voters.

In the end, all but one of his colleagues joined him in approving the mayor’s request. Council member Bill Carlson voted no.

Castor wants the city to study how to divert the 50 million gallons a day of highly treated wastewater currently being flushed into the bay to replenish Sulphur Springs and the Hillsborough River and make the city more resistant to drought.

The mayor says frequently that an adequate water supply is crucial for Tampa’s future and one of her highest priorities. But several council members said public mistrust and unanswered questions meant their votes in support of further exploration came with conditions: much deeper public engagement and expansion of the options to be considered, including expanding the city’s reclaimed water system to irrigate lawns across the city.

Castor administration officials agreed to expand the number of options to consider from the two it had previously offered.

One involves pumping the reclaimed water — which is highly treated, but not drinkable sewage — into the aquifer then pumping it into the reservoir on the Hillsborough River at potable water standards. Another option would be to sell some of the water, inject some of it deep into the aquifer and put the rest into the river.

Related: Tampa Mayor Jane Castor renews push water reuse

On Thursday, saying city staff had listened to the public outcry and council members’ concerns, Jean Duncan, the city’s infrastructure and mobility administrator, promised to expand the scope of the planning to include other options, including expanding the reclaimed water system.

“We’ve heard from council and we’re responding to your request in real time,” said Whit Remer, the city’s sustainability and resiliency officer.

That promise mollified skeptical council members such as John Dingfelder, who said it earned his vote for initial design costs and public engagement, but only for “today.”

Carlson said he couldn’t vote for the project in part because he believes the city could get an exemption from the state for a new law that requires local governments to stop discharging wastewater into waterways by 2032. Carlson said the millions of gallons that the city currently discharges benefits the bay.

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That point was disputed by Remer, who likened the city’s discharge to the equivalent of “1½ Piney Points a year,” because it contains about 650 tons of nitrogen, which harms sea grass.

Luis Viera said he trusted the experts such as those at the Florida Aquarium who support the city’s effort and he echoed city officials in saying that Thursday’s vote wasn’t about a specific project but further study and public education.

“We’re not voting on an option. We’re voting on a dialogue,” Viera said.

Many residents who spoke earlier in the day in opposition said they feared the proposal would expose them to pharmaceuticals found in wastewater and other safety risks. City officials have said an earlier plan to convert the reclaimed water to drinking water is dead. Five out of seven council members opposed that plan in 2019, effectively killing it.

The new plan, dubbed PURE (Purify Natural Resources for the Environment), could end up depositing millions of gallons a day into the reservoir on the river, but the vast majority of it would wash over the dam and downstream from the intake structure for the water supply. In dry periods or droughts, some of the PURE water could blend into the city’s water supply, city officials have said.

Council chairperson Orlando Gudes said public education is key for any chance of success.

“People fear what they don’t know,” Gudes said. “We won’t have these endless fights if we’re just upfront with them.”

Duncan said the city would bring back the results of its evaluation of the options to council members later this year.