After public outcry, Tampa leaders call for ‘radical restart’ with ‘PURE’ wastewater plans

City council members all expressed either doubt or complete disapproval of PURE as a whole.

The final stage of water treatment at Tampa's Howard F. Curren wastewater plant. - Photo via City of Tampa
Photo via City of Tampa
The final stage of water treatment at Tampa's Howard F. Curren wastewater plant.
The City of Tampa’s latest plan for reusing treated sewage might be in the shitter.

Yesterday, Tampa City Council members unanimously voted to turn down a $1.2 million request from Mayor Jane Castor’s administration, which sought to use the money for more research and public talks regarding a controversial plan to divert treated wastewater to the Hillsborough River and potentially use it to augment the city’s drinking supply.

The city currently treats around 50 million gallons per day (MGD) of reclaimed water at its Howard F. Curren wastewater plant before dumping it into the surrounding bay.

Castor’s administration argues that the proposed plan—Purify Usable Resources for the Environment, or “PURE”—could help maintain minimum flows in the lower river, make the city’s drinking water supply more reliable and also help Tampa comply with a recent state law (SB64).

But opponents to the plan—including many who say PURE is just a rebranding of  “toilet to tap” efforts by past administrations—came to city hall in full force. One by one, community members and groups came to the podium to tell city council members, in part, that they don’t trust the administration (citing two DOJ investigations) and that city has not given them adequate answers about the program’s safety and environmental impact, or if the city really needs to be rushing into a project that could cost billions of dollars.

Tampa City Councilmembers heard their constituents loud and clear, too. They not only denied the mayor’s request for more money, but all expressed either doubt or complete disapproval of PURE as a whole.

Councilman Guido Maniscalco even invoked his mother, who he said is pretty persuadable. “Even I couldn’t get her onboard,” he said.

"They really need to listen to the community on this issue and push a radical restart button.”

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“This isn't a shot at city staff. We have a lot of great civil servants, public servants up there,” Councilman Luis Viera told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay after the vote. “I just think that they really need to listen to the community on this issue and push a radical restart button.”

All told, council members passed several motions directing the city’s next steps.

One allows the city to use $880,000 left in the original contract to answer an eight-month old list of questions from community stakeholders to the administration.

Whit Remer, the city's sustainability and resilience officer told reporters that the questions have been addressed in discussions, but not in writing.

City staff now has to answer that list of questions from the Sierra Club in a council meeting on Dec. 1. Staff must also conduct a preliminary findings meeting with stakeholders in January. That gives both stakeholders and the city time to prepare for a bigger Feb. 23 workshop regarding the city’s wastewater reuse plan.

One motion from Councilman Bill Carlson addresses the concern over SB64, which says cities must stop discharging wastewater into bodies of water by 2023. It directs staff to ask Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection if Tampa could qualify its discharge as beneficial use.

“We told the water department that I really wanted to go back to square one,” Councilwoman Lynn Hurtak told CL. She reiterated that part of the issue is that it’s not necessarily just the city that wants to do this, but the state which has required the city to act.

“What if we don't do anything? Let's just start from scratch. What if we keep the status quo and just keep doing what we're doing?,” Hurtak said. “What are the implications on the things that staff say are going to be a problem?”

In an updated fact sheet sent out by Castor’s administration after the council vote, Jean Duncan, City of Tampa Infrastructure & Mobility Administrator, said, “The steps laid out by the city council today are a good path forward to help answers important questions.

“That's been the goal all along - to examine all our options for protecting the long-term health of the Hillsborough River and maintaining a sustainable and safe water supply for future generations," Duncan added.

Remer told reporters that the city has other options when it comes to what it can do with the wastewater, including deep well injection, some form of aquifer storage and even expanding Tampa’s reclaimed water irrigation system.

“Many, many options were always on the table for this and will continue to be explored to the extent that city councils allowed us to continue with a finite amount of money on this project,” Remer added.

Friends of the Hillsborough River member Phil Compton told CL he was happy that council heard the voice of the public. He’s happy that the questions his group and Sierra Club Tampa Bay asked will be addressed, but pointed out that PURE is still not dead.

“A zombie isn’t dead. Zombies die, but they come back,” Compton said. “They're gonna say anything and do anything that they think would revive a project that—no pun intended— looks to be dead in the water.”

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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