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Tampa will look into sending treated wastewater into the Hillsborough River

Hillsborough River
City of Tampa
The Hillsborough River at Interstate 275, just downstream from the city's reservoir

Tampa City Council members decided Thursday to go ahead with a plan to design a system that could pipe wastewater that is now dumped into Tampa Bay into the Hillsborough River instead.

Tampa City Council members decided Thursday to go ahead with a plan to design a system that could pipe wastewater that is now dumped into Tampa Bay into the Hillsborough River instead.

Council members voted 6-1 to study the plan, which will come up for another vote in the fall. The study will cost $1.4 million.

Councilman Guido Maniscalco voted for the study.

"I think we should look at this, we should study it. Approve this moving forward today. But at the same time, ask the public what they think," he said. "We're getting the emails against it. Maybe we need to help people understand what is happening, what is going on, because it's something that will affect this generation, the next generation."

The city currently dumps about 55 million gallons of treated wastewater directly into Tampa Bay every day. Officials say the project is needed because a new state law takes effect in 2032, banning dumping wastewater into waterways.

The project is called PURE, which stands for Purify Usable Resources for the Environment."

The city's website describes the following options are currently under consideration:

  • Pumping water down into the aquifer, which is called recharging the aquifer, and withdrawing it during the dry season, also called recovery of the water.
  • Adding the water created during the PURE process to the Hillsborough River Reservoir.
  • Selling reclaimed water to another water utility.
  • Sending reclaimed water deep underground using deep well injection.
  • Treating reclaimed water to drinking water standards and adding it directly into the drinking water supply.

After listening to public comment, council members agreed to look at expanding the city's reclaimed water system, which now only serves a sliver of South Tampa homeowners.

More than a dozen people spoke out against the proposal.

Environmental activist Phil Compton said it's a continuation of an earlier idea dubbed by critics as "toilet to tap." That would have injected the wastewater into the underground aquifer.

"We only support today's allocation request because the possibility — slim as it may be — that it is possible to create safe and affordable water out of this contaminated resource," Compton said. "If it turns out to not work, pull the plug and push for other approaches to drought-proofing our future."

Stephanie Poynor is with the Gandy Civic Association. She decried the changing of the project's names over the years.

"Pure, One Water, Toilet to Tap. One: How much will this cost on our water bill? Two. What is the overall cost? And three: If it's such a great idea, why do we keep changing the name?" she told council members. "People, when they change their names repeatedly, they're doing shady stuff. It just doesn't look good. I don't know what's going on, but I smell something funky."

But Tampa engineer and activist Joe Robinson supported looking into the plan.

"We're putting all these nutrients in the bay. We've got to come up with some kind of innovative way," he said of dealing with the problem. "And me, as a professional engineer, served on Swiftmud, dealt with water — because water's more important than gold, platinum and gasoline right now. So we need to go ahead and move the needle forward."

This is the city's timeline for the project
City of Tampa
This is the city's timeline for the project

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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