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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Tampa water project benefits entire region

A proposal that goes to the three-county utility Tampa Bay Water on Monday could benefit residents, the economy and the environment across the region. The utility's governing board will consider a proposal by the city of Tampa to redirect highly treated wastewater into the area's drinking water supply. This is a smart use of precious natural resources and an example of regional thinking, and the utility's governing board should approve it.

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. Under a concept Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn unveiled last year, 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 meet the region's drinking needs. By that point, the wastewater would have been treated at least three times.

Communities nationwide are examining how to make greater use of reclaimed water to meet their growing demand while reducing the need for groundwater pumping and other costly water sources. But some members of Tampa Bay Water - whose six members include Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey - have questioned whether Tampa has the right to proceed. St. Petersburg, in particular, is concerned that it could undermine the agency's regional vision.

Utility members, though, worked for months to find common ground. Under the proposal being considered Monday, Tampa could proceed with its reclaimed project. The plan would meet Tampa's long-term water needs and free up at least 20 million gallons a day for the region. Tampa would pay the utility $7 million to help pay for the cooperative's outstanding debt, and Tampa Bay Water would have an option to purchase the recovery wells later. A consultant for the utility's study group on the issue found that the plan could save Tampa Bay Water up to $35 million for water supply projects that would not be needed. And by redirecting these massive discharges, the project would remove huge amounts of nutrients now flowing into Tampa Bay, improving water quality, sea grasses and the region's broader environmental health.

The utility's lawyers say Tampa's proposal is consistent with the interlocal pact that formed the agency. Tampa also underscored in the agreement the board will consider Monday that its reclaimed water project is meant to benefit the entire region, and that the deal "is not intended in any way" to become a tool for Tampa to withdraw or to shirk its obligations as a member. That should give board members confidence. The agency's members and staff resolved this issue themselves, which speaks to the value and strength of this relationship.

Tampa will need to implement this project in good faith. But this is a great opportunity for Tampa Bay Water to reinforce its regional mission, and to act on behalf of residents, taxpayers and the environment.