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Report says Tampa officials say they lobbied for a state law to justify diverting wastewater

City of Tampa reservoir
Southwest Florida Water Management District
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The dam on the Hillsborough River, forming the city of Tampa's drinking water reservoir.

Opponents say the wastewater can't be fully treated for pharmaceuticals and alternative uses should be explored.

Note: This story was updated to add comment from the city of Tampa on 12/9.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Tampa city officials admitted they lobbied the state to pass a law that would require them to divert wastewater that now pours into Tampa Bay.

(City spokesman Adam Smith said they didn't lobby for the bill. The city's reply can be read below).

Some environmentalists are upset, saying this was a way to promote the city's plans to spend billions to reuse the water.

City officials helped write a new state law that requires the city to stop dumping 50 million gallons a day into the bay within 10 years.

The report by the Tampa Bay Times comes just a week after staffers said the city won’t get an exemption to the state law.

Many environmentalists have opposed Mayor Jane Castor's plans to divert treated wastewater to either the underground aquifer or to the Hillsborough River, where the city gets its drinking water. That's a plan the city has been pushing for years under different names, said Nancy Stevens of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club.

"They started with trying to use the reclaimed water in the river," Stevens said. "Then they had TAP, then they had PURE. They're happy to have the state telling them to use all the reclaimed water, because it gives them an excuse.

"They've never presented a reason to the public about how much water's needed, and why we need to do this. And the costs of doing something like this would be in the billions of dollars over 30 years. Someone has a solution that they're looking for a problem to solve. And they have never defined what that problem is."

Stevens says the wastewater can't be fully treated for certain pollutants such as hormones and pharmaceuticals. She says alternatives should be explored, such as reducing water use or expanding the use of treated wastewater for irrigation.

Here's a reply from the City of Tampa to the Times' story:

We are in full support of any effort to make Florida’s water supply sustainable for future generations.

Although we support water reuse, we want to clarify a false impression that may have been left by a The Tampa Bay Times article about of SB64. In no way did we ask for the legislation to be drafted, filed, passed or signed into law. The passage of the bill was a forgone conclusion and the city worked to make it better for our community.

The Times article stated that city lobbyists helped “craft the legislation.” This is an exaggeration. After reviewing a draft of the twelve-page bill, our team lobbied to add one sentence and to extend the deadline by four years. This is the exemption that we worked to add:

"The discharge provides direct ecological or public water supply benefits, such as rehydrating wetlands or implementing the requirements of minimum flows and minimum water levels or recovery or prevention strategies for a waterbody."

This is the extent of the City’s involvement in influencing the bill’s text, but these small changes have significant implications for the City: the original language would have most likely pushed us in the direction of a direct or indirect potable reuse project, like Tampa Augmentation Project (TAP). The changes allow us to use the reclaimed water to maintain minimum flows on the Hillsborough River and other ecological purposes like addressing saltwater intrusion at Sulphur Springs. These changes were a heavy lift given broad statewide support for ending surface water discharges.

If this is considered “crafting legislation,” then painting a wall is building a house.

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