Tampa’s water supply has two major issues. First, a new state law says the city has 10 years to find somewhere other than the bay to dump 50 million gallons of wastewater a day. On top of that, water levels are dangerously close to being unsustainable, according to city staff.
Enter the city’s controversial Purify Usable Resources for the Environment, or PURE, project.
“This will be one of the largest sustainability and resilience projects the city has undertaken,” Tampa’s Sustainability and Resilience Officer Whit Remer said, “and the most impactful for our water quality in the last 40 years.”
But as Deputy Administrator for Infrastructure Brad Baird tells it, PURE is more of a conceptual process than a solid plan right now. But on Thursday, the City Council will hold a series of votes to move the PURE Project forward.
The votes would allow the city to start the process of exploring two options. One would treat the city’s 50 million gallon per day discharge of wastewater to exceed drinking standards. Some of it would be sold to regional partners like Tampa Bay Water and some would be put in a deep injection well.
The other option — which has caused some controversy — would treat the water past drinking standards and some of it would be used to recharge the aquifer, being pumped into the ground until it’s needed during dry seasons. The controversial part is that the water would also be used to keep the city’s reservoir full when it’s pulled from the aquifer. That means some of the wastewater could end up in the drinking supply. Baird, however, said that wouldn’t be the case about 90% of the time.
The first set of votes before the City Council Thursday would outline the scope of work for an initial services agreement and any related financial resolution. It sets up the process for public outreach, stakeholder engagement, developing conceptual designs and delivering a preliminary design report. That would help the City Council select which option to move forward with in about six to eight months.
The next set of votes sets up a design cooperative funding agreement with the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD). The city would kick in $380,000 and the SWFWMD would add another $60,000. Those funds would allow for evaluation of technology that could be used in the project, develop concepts and estimate costs.
The project’s price has also caused some controversy. That’s mostly because it’s not yet known and some estimates put the price at as much as $6 billion over 30 years. But Baird said that option — an extension of the city’s current water reclamation infrastructure — is no longer being considered.
The two options left would be in the ballpark of $500 million, give or take about 30%, according to Water Department Director Chuck Weber.
Weber said the city doesn’t have much of a choice. SB 64, a bill the Legislature passed last year and is now law, required Tampa to get rid of its daily waste discharge into the bay by Jan 1, 2032. And in engineering, 10 years isn’t a long time.
“Fifty million gallons a day,” he said. “It has to go somewhere other than the bay, right? We have to do something. We don’t have a choice.”
Removing the wastewater from the bay would pull about 360 tons of harmful nutrients from Hillsborough Bay every year. Remer said that could reduce salination, improve seagrass restoration and keep harmful algal blooms at bay. Last year, a spill at the Piney Point Phosphate Plant supercharged a red tide bloom that, with a perfect storm of factors, allowed it to penetrate further into the bay than any bloom in the last 50 years.
“To put that in perspective, the Piney Point disaster, which we all remember, was around 200 tons of discharge,” Remer said. “We’ll be removing a Piney Point-and-a-half a year from the bay.”
And aside from the state statute, the city needs to maintain healthy river flows and protect against drought. Sulphur Springs, which is pumped as the city’s primary source for keeping the Hillsborough River flow healthy, has seen its salination spike over the last few decades and isn’t a long-term viable source and could jeopardize the health of the whole river.
Then there’s drought. Baird said two major droughts since the year 2000 nearly wiped out the city’s drinking water supply.
Remer added droughts come in cycles and Tampa has seen some extreme ones lately, meaning more will likely come.
“Drought proofing the reservoir is a huge, huge benefit,” he said. “Not knowing what the future holds, but knowing we can prepare for it and provide redundancy and resilience, is really important.”
But the City Council hasn’t been the easiest sell. It has scaled back previous funding requests and Council member Bill Carlson has been a staunch critic. He has said the lowest price he has seen for a PURE Project to be put in place still exceeds $2 billion.
“The city of Tampa Water Department continues to erode trust with the public by presenting false or misleading information to justify their multibillion-dollar boondoggle projects that waste taxpayer money,” Carlson said. “The only way City Council can bring out the truth and accountability is by rejecting the contracts and budgets for their projects. The public expects more from us than rubber stamping bad proposals.”
City staff was, however, able to win at least some support from a previously more hesitant group of environmental stakeholders. The group, composed of Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters, said it supports the city exploring ideas more fully. But it wants the process slowed and favors selling the water instead of using it in the reservoir.
“Tampa citizens need to be confident that their drinking water is safe,” the group wrote in a letter to the City Council. “Relying upon reclaimed water and new, unproven technology will be concerning to water users without confirming the safety and efficacy of PURE.”
The Tampa City Council will discuss a vote on the PURE Project proposals during this Thursday’s meeting.