The board of the three-county utility Tampa Bay Water will meet again Monday to discuss Tampa’s plan to convert treated wastewater into a new drinking water supply. This is an opportunity to start focusing less on the pinched legal argument for killing the proposal and more on the considerable economic and environmental benefits the project could offer the entire region.
Tampa provides 4 million to 6 million gallons of treated wastewater every day to reclaimed water customers. But its treatment plant discharges about 60 million gallons daily into Tampa Bay, a needless waste of a precious resource. Under a concept in the planning stages for years, the city would redirect about 50 million gallons a day from the treatment plant into the aquifer, where it would naturally filtrate. Then the water would be pumped back up, with roughly half going to the city’s water treatment plant and the other half to the Hillsborough River reservoir, where Tampa Bay Water could use it to help meet the bay area’s drinking needs. By that point, the wastewater would have been treated at least three times.
Tampa pulled the plan from the utility’s immediate consideration in June after the board—whose members include Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey—continued to withhold its approval over concerns about costs, environmental impacts and Tampa’s legal authority under the partnership agreement to supply itself with more drinking water. On Monday, the board will address a memo from one of the attorneys who helped draft the agreement in 1998 who now says “it seems clear” that the members intended to limit reclaimed water for irrigation and other non-drinking purposes.
Tampa city attorneys said Tuesday that conclusion is “too narrow” and “did not fully address” the city’s rights under the partnership agreement to use the river for its drinking water needs. The city also pointed out that the opinion “contradicts” the legal finding of Tampa Bay Water’s general counsel, who wrote in March that a proposed compact authorizing Tampa’s plan was “consistent” with the utility’s founding agreement. Outside attorneys also found in October that Tampa’s plan “does not violate any provisions” of the agency’s bond commitments.
It’s incredible that an agency formed to end the region’s water wars would now entangle itself in legal gymnastics to kill a promising, sustainable water supply project. In the end, this is a policy decision, not a legal one. It’s time to judge the proposal on its merits. That can happen only by continuing the engineering and environmental studies. Board members have an obligation to make an informed decision on whether Tampa’s plan is good for growth, the ecosystem and ratepayers. The studies to date merit moving forward.
Tampa was right to step back temporarily as a confidence-building measure. Officials will hold a workshop with city council Aug. 29 to walk through the analysis that made the reclaimed project a favored option. It’s time that science, economics and reason start driving this debate -- not one stray legal memo and a revival of parochial political maneuvers that Tampa Bay Water was designed to overcome.
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