Tampa’s plan for its wastewater in peril after City Council vote

Council members voted unanimously to deny additional funding for Mayor Jane Castor’s project to convert wastewater into water.
Tampa City Council members Thursday rejected a $1.2 million funding request for a controversial project that would turn wastewater into water.
Tampa City Council members Thursday rejected a $1.2 million funding request for a controversial project that would turn wastewater into water. [ Charlie Frago ]
Published Sep. 15, 2022|Updated Sep. 15, 2022

TAMPA — A high-profile and controversial project championed for decades by Tampa’s mayors to turn highly-treated sewage into water that is injected into the aquifer or Hillsborough River has hit a solid wall of opposition Thursday from City Council members.

By a unanimous vote, council members rejected an administration request to spend $1.2 million in additional analysis and public engagement on Purify Usable Resources for the Environment, or PURE.

The project would convert about 50 million gallons per day of reclaimed water into water safe enough to bolster the Hillsborough River’s minimum flows and drought-proof the city. It would also enable the city to comply with a state law that requires cities that discharge wastewater into bodies of water to stop doing so by 2032, say Castor staffers. The mayor has made securing a dependable water supply one of her top priorities.

But, in the face of mounting public criticism, including from the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the Friends of the Hillsborough River and the League of Women Voters, city officials have said recently that they are open modifying the project.

Those groups say the city hasn’t answered questions about safety, cost and whether the city even needs the extra capacity. They urged council members to kill the project outright.

Related: Tampa wastewater reuse project under fire again

Council members didn’t go that far at Thursday’s meeting.

Council member Lynn Hurtak won her colleagues’ support to use about $881,000 already approved for PURE earlier this year to be used to see if the city can continue business as usual with its water supply.

“The simple question everyone is asking is do we need this,” Hurtak said. “Let’s find out what the best and worst case scenarios are if we keep the status quo.”

Castor’s staff will report back to council members at a workshop early next year.

But Hurtak, along with Orlando Gudes, Bill Carlson, Guido Maniscalco and Luis Viera, all expressed either outright opposition to the project or strong reservations, throwing its future political viability in doubt.

The city’s administrator for infrastructure and mobility, Jean Duncan, said the city is trying to listen to opponents and proceed slowly with a project that may cost upwards of $3 billion over 30 years when all costs are included.

“There is no interest on our part whatsoever to do anything unsafe,” Duncan said. “We said we would take slow, incremental, thoughtful steps. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The Castor administration had to scuttle an earlier version of the project, which was designed to bolster the city’s drinking water supply by pumping highly treated sewage underground. PURE was the second attempt to get it done. As opposed to its earlier iteration, PURE’s purpose would be to insure flows on the Hillsborough River, lower salinity levels in Sulphur Springs and make the city less likely to have to buy water during a drought.

Opponents urged council members to reject spending more money on PURE, saying it was just another attempt to gain approval to convert wastewater into drinking water.

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“This is TAP with a new name and the funding needs to stop,” said Gary Gibbons, vice chairperson of the Sierra Club’s Tampa Bay Chapter, referring to the previous program, Tampa Augmentation Project, by its acronym.

Castor’s sustainability and resiliency officer, Whit Remer, told reporters after the vote that he believed the mayor still had some “flexibility” heading into a February council workshop.

“The idea of continuing to explore options for our wastewater, there’s still flexibility there with what council passed today,” Remer said.

Council members wanted to know what would happen if the city did nothing at all, Remer said.

“We’re happy to spend the funds to answer that question,” he said. “That’s a question that we think needs to be answered.”