1. Opinion

Editorial: Explore benefits of Tampa's reclaimed water plan

A new analysis shows the potential benefits to the entire region if Tampa proceeds with its plan to redirect treated wastewater into the area's drinking water supply. Beyond being easier on the environment and providing a resource to meet the demands of growth and the cycles of drought, the plan could save area governments tens of millions of dollars by deferring the need for new water supply projects. The potential savings underscores the need for the six member governments in Tampa Bay Water, the regional water utility, to embrace the concept of Tampa's proposal as the vetting goes forward.

Tampa provides 4 million to 6 million gallons of treated wastewater every day to customers from South Tampa to Tampa International Airport. But its treatment plant discharges a far greater amount, about 60 million gallons, daily into Tampa Bay. This is a huge waste of a valuable resource, which is why Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has proposed redirecting 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 meet the region's drinking needs. By that point, the wastewater would have been treated at least three times.

Tampa Bay Water has been exploring how to expand the use of reclaimed water, but the utility's six member governments also have questioned whether Tampa has the right to proceed under the cooperative's interlocal agreement. That is a pointless debate; all the member governments already have the exclusive right under the agreement "to develop, own and/or operate" their own reclaimed water systems. The utility should be working to get this done, not fighting parochial fights that fueled the region's water wars in the first place.

Tampa Bay Water was right to de-escalate the debate by creating a committee to examine Tampa's reclaimed water proposal. In a study for that group, an Orlando financial consultant found Tampa's project could save Tampa Bay Water $28 million to $35 million, due to its ability "to delay future water supply projects." Tampa bringing more drinking water resources on-line would help meet its growing demands, free up water capacity for the utility's other members and delay for up to several years or more a need for new water supply projects.

There is a path here to create a more sustainable water policy in one of the fastest-growing areas of the country. By August, Tampa Bay Water is expected to rank the projects to meet its long-term water needs. Tampa's reclaimed plan deserves fair consideration. The amount of water at stake is twice the capacity of the utility's desalination plant. Reducing the need for costly capital projects would benefit taxpayers across the region — as would reducing the nutrient load in Tampa Bay.

The consultant's report shows that it's time to replace political carping with financial soundness and common sense. Tampa has a chance to make worthwhile use of a precious resource that now goes to waste. This should be seen as a shared win and another mark of regional unity. And it shouldn't take forever to decide whether the project stands on its merits.