Expand Tampa's reclaimed water system

Published Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The city of Tampa imposed the tightest watering ban in the region to help the Tampa Bay area cope with the drought. It can lead by example again by vastly expanding its reclaimed water system. Officials want to more than triple the number of people who use highly treated wastewater instead of drinking water to irrigate their lawns. The move could save more drinking water than the seawater desalination plant adds to the region's supply. It also would recharge the Hillsborough River, Tampa's principal water source. The city should be open to incentives to make it happen.

Half the drinking water the region produces ends up on lawns. That's why any serious conservation effort must give people another option. Yet in Tampa, only 8,700 customers — or 6 percent — have access to reclaimed water, and of that, only one in three is hooked up. Meanwhile the city dumps 55 million gallons of reclaimed water into the bay every day. That's double the amount of water the desal plant produces.

The city wants to expand the reclaimed distribution system beyond its current south Tampa boundaries, which encompasses mostly Palma Ceia and Hyde Park. The $340 million plan would bring service to another 9,000 customers in five years, mostly in the areas of Ballast Point, Bayshore Boulevard and North Hyde Park. By 2024, the water would be available in New Tampa.

The city also wants to require residents to hook up to reclaimed if service is available. That is reasonable, given the scarcity of water and the expense to all taxpayers of laying reclaimed water lines. But the city should offer rebates in exchange for requiring service. Now residents pay from $99 to about $400 in fees and metering charges (beyond the expense of hiring a plumber) to connect to the system. The city could credit residents that same amount on their reclaimed bills. Both sides would win. Residents would not be penalized for hooking up to the system, and the city would find new buyers for water it now throws away.