Tampa wastewater reuse project under fire again

Opponents want the city to kill any future funding for city’s plan to recycle highly treated wastewater to bolster water supply.
Sierra Club Tampa Bay vice chairperson Gary Gibbons and other opponents of the city's plan to reuse highly treated wastewater detailed their concerns at a news conference Monday in Sulphur Springs.
Sierra Club Tampa Bay vice chairperson Gary Gibbons and other opponents of the city's plan to reuse highly treated wastewater detailed their concerns at a news conference Monday in Sulphur Springs. [ CHARLIE FRAGO | Times ]
Published Sept. 13, 2022|Updated Sept. 13, 2022

TAMPA — For years, environmentalists and Tampa city officials have sparred over what to do with about 50 million gallons per day of highly treated wastewater currently being dumped into Tampa Bay.

The city wants to divert the wastewater to replenish the Hillsborough River, help lower salinity levels in Sulphur Springs and, possibly, augment the city’s drinking supply.

Opponents say traces of pharmaceuticals or household beauty products could endanger residents and wildlife. And they say the project would be an expensive boondoggle that would increase water bills by up to $67 a month.

On Monday, yet another fight over Purify Usable Resources for the Environment (PURE) began as city officials held briefings with reporters while opponents held a news conference on the banks of the lower Hillsborough River in Sulphur Springs.

Mayor Jane Castor wants City Council members to delay about $1 million for the next round of analysis and public engagement until February, after it receives feedback from the state and the regional water utility, Tampa Bay Water.

The Sierra Club, the Friends of the Hillsborough River and the League of Women Voters say the city hasn’t raised enough awareness about a potentially multibillion-dollar project and that it hasn’t answered questions about the safety or provided a true cost estimate. They want to quash the funding for it for good.

“This is the third time this project has come back. It’s time to kill it,” said Gary Gibbons, vice chairperson and political chairperson of the Sierra Club’s Tampa Bay chapter.

That opportunity could come Thursday, when council members are slated to vote on whether to grant the mayor’s delay. Council members Bill Carlson and Lynn Hurtak have been opposed to the project. Other council members have been on the fence.

Whit Remer, the city’s sustainability and resiliency officer, said the city is following a request by council members to reexamine other options, such as expanding the city’s reclaimed water for lawn irrigation.

We have not decided a particular use for this water,” Remer said. “We are open to ideas.”

The city has thrown out previous cost projections for the project until it decides which path to pursue, said Chuck Weber, the city’s water director.

“We’re kind of starting over with costs,” Weber said.

Opponents say that $1.2 million authorized by council members last February for public engagement and analysis hasn’t been adequately accounted for. City staffers say they were asking for more money because they’re taking another look at the options and to more deeply engage the public — at the request of Carlson and other council members.

For many environmentalists, the issue comes down to trust. The project, the dream of Tampa mayors since Dick Greco, said Friends of the Hillsborough River member Phil Compton, “is a nightmare.”

“We don’t know if it’s safe and don’t know if we can afford it,” he said.

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Sierra Club conservation chairperson Nancy Stevens added that there is no rush for a program to turn treated wastewater into water.

“We have time to make sense” of the city’s plans for future water use, she said.

Stevens and others want the city to wait until the Environmental Protection Agency develops drinking water standards for “contaminants of emerging concern” like pharmaceuticals. Twenty meetings with the mayor and her staff since December 2020 haven’t yielded answers to their concerns about safety and cost, they said.

Remer and Weber argue that the city is listening to those concerns and working closely with federal regulators.

“We’re not going to build something until we know what the regulations are,” Weber said.

A recent state law requires cities such as Tampa that release wastewater into water bodies to stop doing so by 2032. So the city can’t afford to delay too long, Weber said.

Opponents say the city should seek an exemption from that 10-year window from the state.