Experts say we're running out of water. Is "toilet to tap" the answer?

Councilman Miranda (below right) was a vocal supporter of the Tampa lawn-sprinkling ban during last spring's stifling drought, accusing fellow Council members of waffling on the issue when they called to reverse the ban. "I don't know why we flip-flop. We should be at McDonalds, flipping and flopping hamburgers. What we have here today is a serious situation that's not getting any better." He's passionate about adjusting water consumption in the area, and wants voters to be given the chance to vote on a proposal in March of 2011 that would call for construction of a treatment plant that would transfer sewage water into potable water.

[image-1]But he knows that getting people to feel positive about such a system will be a challenge. Especially with headlines like one that ran last year in a local paper: "Taking the Plunge With Toilet Water." But, he says, "I feel very confident with the technology improving every day, there is no doubt in my mind that this is only way [to go]."

He's facing some serious doubters — like Phil Compton, one of the area's most respected environmentalists (Sierra Club, Friends of the River). Emphasizing that he speaks for himself and not the groups he represents, Compton asks, "What are the effects on human beings after they consume such water? How much do we know about that? I can't tell you it's safe, and I'd like to see Charlie Miranda show me that data otherwise."

University of South Florida Integrative Biology Professor Thomas Crisman says that there are essentially three ways to get water throughout the world: 1) capturing storm water runoff; 2) using seawater (as with the desalination plant in Hillsborough County, which has been severely hampered since its inception); or 3) reuse, or IPR.

Crisman's department, in addition to the USF College of Public Health and other sponsors, will be hosting two public information workshops on IPR at USF's College of Public Health auditorium, with the first event taking place on Thursday, January 28, entitled, "The Impending Water Crises of Tampa Bay: Waste, Reuse & Environmental Protection."

"We are running out of water. Period," Crisman says flatly. "In the world in general, and Tampa in particular."

So how does IPR work?

Currently, the city of Tampa is dumping 55 million gallons of treated sewage water into Hillsborough Bay. The goal would be to take that water (which now goes to the Howard Curren treatment plant) and put it through two more processes. The plant would send the sewage water through reverse osmosis and ultraviolet processing. Then the water would go into the Hillsborough River, where it would ultimately flow to the David Tippen treatment plant. There the water would be treated again before being sent directly to citizens' homes.

Currently, about 2 million gallons of that treated wastewater is being used by residents for irrigation purposes, as part of the city's STAR Project. But distribution of that resource is limited to residents in the South Tampa region, where currently about 4,000 residents use the service. Though there has been talk about expanding the program, the costs seem prohibitive.

But the city must find a way to do something with the 55 million gallons of highly treated water currently being dumped into the bay. It's not clear how much nitrogen the water contains, and there are concerns that the state's Department of Environmental Protection and/or the EPA could someday rule that the city can no longer continue to dump that much water.

That's why Charlie Miranda wants to use the IPR system to take the 55 million gallons and treat it for ultimate potable consumption. But he wants Tampa citizens to have the opportunity over the course of the next year to vet the situation fully.

Some city officials think it's a reasonable position to take. Ralph Metcalfe is the director of the city's wastewater department. He's observed the Upper Occoquan service authority in Northern Virginia. There the plant's wastewater is treated and mixed with the city's drinking water supply and then discharged into the historic creek called Bull Run.

"They've been doing it for a number of years. It looked like a Coors beer commercial," Metcalfe says, reflecting on the purity of the water running down the creek. "It worked there. The thing is, I know it can work [here]."

But at what cost? According to Councilman Miranda, it would take $200 million to renovate the Howard Curren treatment plant. That sounds expensive, except in comparison to how much it might cost to try to expand the STAR program citywide.

But then there's the image problem. People have concerns about drinking such water, concerns generally referred to as "the yuk factor." The fears may be unfounded, but the prejudice is powerful.

Some Council members think the issue could get so politicized that it might be best for them to decide among themselves whether to go ahead with the project.

John Dingfelder says he recognizes that IPR is being used in other parts of the U.S. and around the world, but says "most of those places are generally very desperate for water." He also voices "suspicions" about the health effects of dumping reclaimed water into the drinking water system, citing a recent report in the Tampa Tribune that found low levels of antibiotics and chemicals in the city's drinking water supply right now.

Linda Saul-Sena is concerned about whether the city can pull enough information together by the time the election rolls around next year, but says, "I'm open-minded. We need to collect further information at this point."

That's why Saul-Sena is encouraged by the two public meetings that USF Professor Crisman and his colleagues will hold over the next month on the subject. Crisman says the ground rules will be that there are "no political questions or comments."

The politics will come afterwards. The Tampa City Council is scheduled on February 25 to discuss the matter. Last September, Mayor Pam Iorio issued a memo in which she said it was possible to treat reclaimed water for potable purposes, but she stressed that the public should hear a full discussion about the issue before going to the ballot box.

Councilman Charlie Miranda said that's what he's willing to do over the next year, but a referendum campaign will need cash if it's going to convince the public that IPR is a safe proposition. In an interview with CL late last year, Miranda admitted that it'll take money to get the message out, but he hopes to be able to recruit public speakers to sell the idea (presumably at little to no cost). He says he hopes to "create 250 Charlies out in the street," spreading the message of IPR.

It won't be easy. Though Orange County, CA, uses such a system, it's sandwiched between two major cities, Los Angeles and San Diego, that have both rejected IPR so far, even though California continues to suffer from serious droughts. A spokesperson for the Orange County Water District tells CL that an extensive public education campaign, as well as buy-in from local environmentalists, has made their system relatively non-controversial. However, politicians never took the issue to the public.

Miranda says he could try to get four Council members to pass a proposed bill this year, but believes it's such an important issue that the public should have their say. He warns, "Sooner or later, if we don't do something about this, that water faucet is going to stop to a drip."

Tampa consumers use an enormous amount of water — between 70 to 75 million gallons a day, 25 percent of which is currently used for lawn irrigation.

And with population growth in Florida predicted to rebound in coming decades, there's no question that we will need more. We'll either have to find a way to increase our supply, change the way we currently use it, or both.

One of the most promising strategies for meeting this challenge is called indirect potable reuse (IPR), a technique that has been successful in California, Virginia, Texas, Israel and parts of Africa. Tampa City Councilman Charlie Miranda is hopeful that it can be adopted, or at least considered, here.

The trouble is, IPR has an image problem, one that's inextricably related to its descriptive, if derisive (and only partially accurate) nickname: "Toilet to Tap."

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