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Tampa City Council votes to kill latest wastewater reuse plan, will hold session to answer questions

Environmental activists are critical of the plan that could move treated wastewater to the drinking supply.

TAMPA, Fla. — The years-long debate over how to handle the city of Tampa’s wastewater continued Thursday with Tampa city council members voting to end the city's current project that could divert heavily-treated wastewater to the city’s drinking water supply.

The idea, however, is not totally dead. Several motions were passed by city council to further discussions about Tampa's water future. 

A motion filed by council member Lynn Hurtak allows the city to use the remaining $880,000 leftover from the original water reuse contract passed in February of 2022 to answer questions raised by stakeholders and council members. The motion passed to hold a workshop in February of next year where city staff is expected to answer questions and concerns of environmental groups and other community members.

Three other motions passed, all filed by councilman Bill Carlson calling on the city to explore other options before moving forward with a water reuse project —  including exemptions from the state, negotiating water contracts already on the books through an interlocal agreement with Tampa Bay Water, and asking Tampa Bay Water to test Tampa's wastewater as part of their routine analysis of water sources.

Right now the city treats roughly 50 million gallons of wastewater a day before dumping it into Tampa Bay. But, the city was pushing a new plan known as PURE, which stands for Purify Usable Resources for the Environment, which in part would divert the wastewater to the Hillsborough River and potentially the drinking supply.

The city of Tampa once pushed a water reuse project dubbed "toilet to tap," which was highly criticized for being unsafe, risky, and unnecessary.

"Really sounded like a rebranding of tap to us," said Nancy Stevens, the Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club, who alongside environmental activists argues the plan would cause unnecessary risk and potentially harm wildlife and human health.

"Using wastewater should be one of the last things we do because it’s very expensive to make it safe," said Stevens, who added the idea is so new that there are not even standards or regulations. The city says public health is a top priority.

Leaders with the city of Tampa argue that PURE is just an opportunity to explore options and research new ways to best use Tampa's wastewater.

"We’ve expanded the scope by looking at many options," said Whit Remer, the city's sustainability and resilience officer.

On the city's website, it says some of the options include:

  • 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.
  • Adding treated reclaimed water to the base of the Hillsborough River Dam to maintain healthy river flows to the Lower Hillsborough River

With Thursday's vote to end PURE, it's unclear what plan the city will examine ahead of the workshop in February. Council asked city staff to answer seventeen specific questions asked by environmental groups in addition to others posed by the council.

RELATED: Environmental activists criticise Tampa's latest wastewater reuse project

RELATED: Saving our Springs: How pollution, pumping and people are destroying Florida's freshwater treasures

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