Tampa's Reclaimed Water System Lags Behind Others
March 26, 2009
With the drought worsening and water restrictions getting tougher, city residents are looking to reclaimed water as a way to conserve water and keep their lawns green.
But unless you live in South Tampa, you'll have to wait.
That's because only a handful of the city's neighborhoods are hooked up to the system and plans to expand reclaimed water distribution lines to other areas are years away.
City officials say the demand for reclaimed water from residential customers has risen dramatically since last week, when the city council approved new watering restrictions.
The new rules, the toughest in the state, go into effect April 3 and will allow only hand-watering of lawns one day a week. Reclaimed water users are exempt from the rules.
"We've seen a huge increase in reclaimed requests, but we just don't have capacity to accommodate that demand," said Brad Baird, director of Tampa Water Department.
Baird said the city plans to expand the system, but that could take several years.
"Expansion of a reclaimed water system is very costly and time consuming," he said.
This week, the city floated the idea of giving away reclaimed water to local landscaping contractors as part of an effort to get more of the treated effluent onto parched lawns.
But so far, city officials have found few takers.
Tampa for years has struggled with its reclaimed water system, which currently serves only about 3,100 residents in the Hyde Park, Davis Island and Beach Park areas.
By comparison, Hillsborough County provides reclaimed water to more than 15,000 households; Pasco serves about 10,000; and Pinellas serves more than 37,000.
The city's system, known as the South Tampa Area Reclaimed system, provides highly treated wastewater from Howard F. Curren Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant.
City planners say they chose South Tampa because residents had expressed interest in the service and because of the area's proximity to the treatment plant on Hooker's Point.
But residents were slow to sign up for the program when it began several years ago, in part, because the cost of drinking water was about the same as the cost of reclaimed.
There were other problems: clogged and damaged pipes and construction delays.
In 2007, the city increased the price of drinking water and lowered the cost of reclaimed water, part of an effort to get more customers to hook up. They also established a one-time $375 connection fee for residents who hadn't previously signed up the service.
The new rates generated a few hundred more users.
Mayor Pam Iorio has said she is committed to expanding the reclaimed water system, focusing on areas where water usage is high and are close to reclaimed water lines.
To pay for it, the city has turned to the Obama administration and Congress, hoping to get a slice of the proposed $787 billion stimulus package. In a wish list submitted last month, the city requested more than $300 million to expand the reclaimed system.
One of those areas is New Tampa, which has one of the largest growing populations and expansive lawns and grassy common areas along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
Under former Mayor Dick Greco, the city toyed with a plan to build a pipeline from the wastewater plant to New Tampa. For several reasons, including cost, the plan never materialized. At one point, projected costs for the plan reached nearly $120 million.
Iorio later abandoned the New Tampa pipe plan.
Beside the cost of transmission, treated wastewater is also expensive to produce: It takes about six households to make enough reclaimed to serve one household.
City officials are currently working on a 20-year reclaimed water plan that focuses on expanding the system and sets guidelines for large users and residential customers.
But the report is expected to focus on expanding more into South Tampa and pumping reclaimed to larger commercial users like the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
Another issue facing the city is what happens to the excess reclaimed water.
Tampa dumps about 55 million gallons of unused reclaimed into the Bay every day.
Both the city of Tampa and the county are under pressure from the state Department of Environmental Protection to stop dumping unused treated wastewater into waterways.
Even though the water is highly treated, it still contains high levels of nitrogen that can rob natural water bodies of oxygen needed by fish, shellfish and other marine life.
Regionally, Tampa Bay Water managers are pushing plans to replace drinking water within the region with reclaimed water for lawn irrigation by 2025.
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