1. Opinion

Editorial: Tampa Bay Water should approve Tampa water project

The city's proposal to convert highly treated wastewater into drinking water would benefit both Tampa and the region.

A plan that goes to the Tampa Bay Water board on Monday promotes the very goal the three-county utility was formed to achieve. The city of Tampa wants to convert highly treated wastewater into a new drinking water supply and share that resource across the growing region. The utility board should move forward on a project that helps provide Tampa Bay the water it needs to grow - and in a cheaper and more sustainable way. Tampa should continue working with area partners to build confidence in a project that could be another high mark of regional unity.

Tampa provides 4 million to 6 million gallons of treated wastewater every day to reclaimed water customers in the South Tampa area. But its treatment plant discharges a far greater amount, about 60 million gallons daily, into Tampa Bay. Under a concept in the planning stages for several 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.

The utility board - whose members include Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey - has withheld its approval for months. The delays are in part over environmental concerns and fears that a Tampa-driven project could undermine the agency's regional mission. Tampa officials have worked to reasonably address those issues, offering assurances that the environmental benefits could be substantial and the project would come in on budget.

The process of permitting and design will expose any improvements Tampa needs to make in the project. For now, the consultants see three key benefits: The plan could help the region meet its water needs, avoid about $35 million in unnecessary regional water supply projects and remove thousands of pounds of pollutants daily from Tampa Bay. Redirecting water to the reservoir would also improve the health of the Hillsborough River, an increasingly important feature of Tampa's urban rebirth.

This is an opportunity to save local ratepayers money, clean area waters and put a wasted resource to precious use for the entire region. The project reaffirms the commitment of the member-governments to manage Tampa Bay's natural resources in a collaborative and mutually beneficial way. And it lays a foundation for area governments and Tampa's next mayor, who after upcoming elections will take office in May, to carve a strong and long-term working relationship.

The utility board should approve an agreement Monday moving the project forward. And Tampa should take the concerns of the member-governments to heart as it seeks regional support for project design and funding. This would be the start - not the end - of an inclusive process for bringing a more sustainable water strategy to Tampa Bay.