1. Opinion

Editorial: Tampa Bay Water should keep pursuing wastewater plan

Tampa Bay Water, the three-county utility, has an opportunity Monday to move forward on a credible plan that offers environmental and economic benefits for the entire region. The city of Tampa's proposal to convert highly treated wastewater into a drinking water source raises several reasonable questions. But the best way to find the answers is to continue to pursue a proposal that would make smart use of an unused resource.

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 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 Tampa Bay Water board — whose members include Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey — has withheld its approval due to environmental concerns and fears that a Tampa-driven project could undermine the agency's regional mission. But those sticking points ignore some basic facts about the project and the reasons for pursuing it, and the board should agree Monday to keep it on track.

Only by moving forward with permitting and design will any environmental impacts become clear. The city's engineers have raised no red flags so far. Tampa also is addressing so-called "contaminants of emerging concern," such as pharmaceutical toxins, but so far researchers are reporting lower levels in the city's wastewater than in other source waters across the region. And as a practical matter, Tampa would be using this as a water source, too. It has no interest in putting its own residents at risk.

Tampa is also not using the project as a means for withdrawing from Tampa Bay Water. The city recognizes the value of working cooperatively to manage the region's water resources; that's one reason it's bringing a new, significant water supply to the table. Consultants say that reusing water now being dumped into the bay could help the region meet its growing water needs - all while saving local taxpayers up to $35 million in avoided costs for new water supply projects. And redirecting the water could remove thousands of pounds of pollutants daily from Tampa Bay.

The project is also in keeping with the utility's framework agreement, signed in 1998. That agreement gives Tampa the specific right to self-supply its water needs to a certain level. And it gives all member-governments "the exclusive right to develop, own, and/or operate all facilities for reclaimed water." Some member governments may not like these provisions, but Tampa is acting well within the boundaries.

This is an opportunity to save money for ratepayers across the region, clean area waters and put a wasted resource to precious use for the entire area. It reaffirms Tampa Bay Water's original purpose - to reduce environmental stress on the region's natural resources by managing them in a more effective way. Utility members deserve a comfort level with the plan and with Tampa's commitment as a partner. The surest way to resolve those concerns is to move forward with exploring the reclaimed project.