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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Tampa Bay Water should move forward on reclaimed water without needing state intervention

Tampa Bay Water has made its share of mistakes in its 20-year history, and with six member-governments in three counties, conflicting views and parochial tensions are a part of life. But no one can seriously argue that this regional cooperative is not the smartest way to manage the bay area's drinking water resources. Two bills pending in the Florida Legislature don't spell the end to Tampa Bay Water, but they are top-down fixes to problems that can and should be resolved at the local level.

The bills sponsored by Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young (SB 1710) and Democratic Rep. Janet Cruz (HB 1303) call for giving each member of the utility "the absolute right" to use whatever reclaimed water they produce as they see fit, whether that means adding it to their drinking water supply, selling it to the authority or marketing the water to a non-member government. Highly treated wastewater is becoming a hot commodity, not only for outdoor irrigation and industrial uses but also for its potential to augment drinking water supplies. Tampa provides between 4 million and 6 million gallons of treated wastewater a day to customers from South Tampa to Tampa International Airport. But its treatment plant discharges a far greater amount, about 60 million gallons, every day into Tampa Bay. This is a huge waste of a valuable resource that could be put to better use in the fast-growing region.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn sees the legislation as a tool to break a logjam with Tampa Bay Water over the city's plans to expand its reclaimed system. Tampa proposes to pipe about 50 million gallons a day from the treatment plant into the aquifer, where it would naturally filtrate, and then pump it 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 water — unlike the wastewater that has spilled in area water bodies during heavy rains over the past year — will have been treated at least three times.

Tampa Bay Water has been exploring how to expand the use of reclaimed, too, but it's not moving as fast as Tampa, which says it could start construction on the system within five years. Last fall, officials at Tampa Bay Water questioned Tampa's legal right under the cooperative's interlocal agreement to create a new source of drinking water for itself independent of the utility. This legislation ups the ante, and on Monday, Tampa Bay Water's governing board voted 6-3 to oppose the bills. The three votes in favor of the bills came from representatives from Tampa and Hillsborough County.

As a practical matter, there is no clear need to change the law. The member-governments — Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, and their three biggest cities — already have the exclusive right under the utility's interlocal agreement "to develop, own and/or operate" their own reclaimed water systems. The legislation backs up the agreement with statutory force, but it makes clear the intent is not to curb, void or modify the utility's foundational agreement. Still, it's unwise to involve the state in a matter that can and should be resolved within the region. Tampa Bay Water should simply work this out among its members with an eye toward helping, not hindering, what Tampa is trying to accomplish.

None of this would have come to pass if Tampa Bay Water had responded to Tampa's plans by heralding the opportunity to make greater use of reclaimed water and welcoming the city's offer to provide a drought-resistant water source that could benefit all of the region. It is senseless to return to the water wars of the 1980s, when area governments spent millions on lawyers' fees instead of realizing their shared interest in pooling this resource in the most efficient way.

Tampa's project could be a win for all sides and build a more sustainable path for meeting the region's water needs in the future. The amount of reclaimed that could be redirected from the bay to the regional supply would be double the capacity of Tampa Bay Water's desalination plant. This is a chance to improve the health of the bay, reduce capital costs for new water projects and keep groundwater pumping and water rates in check. It's time to make the numbers work and to tell the lawyers to go home.

But this also isn't an issue screaming out for legislative interference. The interlocal is specific enough to give Tampa Bay Water the guidance it needs to do the right thing. And all sides have an interest in coming to an agreement on reclaimed sooner rather than later — and shouldn't need the state's help to do so. State lawmakers get involved in local decisions too much already. There is already a way forward if area governments work in good faith.