Tampa City Council OKs $77 million for wastewater improvements

The money, however, won’t be spent on PURE, said Tampa’s Wastewater Department Director Eric Weiss.

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click to enlarge Junction Chamber No.1 at the Howard F. Curren wastewater plant in Tampa, Florida.
Junction Chamber No.1 at the Howard F. Curren wastewater plant in Tampa, Florida.
Yesterday, Tampa City Council voted unanimously to fund $77 million in wastewater improvements. Under Tampa’s wastewater master plan, $577 million is slated for wastewater over the next 20 years.

The city has already funded $54 million to date, according to Tampa’s Wastewater Department Director Eric Weiss, who said the funds won’t go towards Mayor Jane Castor’s controversial PURE (Purify Usable Resources for the Environment) project. That project would treat and release reclaimed wastewater back into the Hillsborough River to supplement the city’s drinking water source. But Weiss assured the council that the funds are needed to update old equipment under the master plan.

“It’s really just replacement of existing facilities,” Weiss told the council. “Everything is just old.”

Tampa’s Howard F. Curren wastewater plant treats about 50 million gallons per day of reclaimed water before dumping it into the nearby Hillsborough Bay. Weiss says wastewater piping was built in low-lying basements back in the 1970s. That poses a risk with sea level rise and the possibility of hurricane flooding. The funds would raise equipment up 13 feet and refurbish the second step of Tampa’s three-part water treatment process.

“Removing the organics from the wastewater, also known as carbon, was the backbone of the treatment plan,” Weiss said. “this $77 million will completely rehab that whole process.”

The presentation spelled out the history of the wastewater treatment plant back to its 1950s origin. Council member Lynn Hurtak thanked Weiss for clearing up the confusion.

“It can be very confusing so thank you for clarifying to the best of your ability,” Hurtak said. “It makes clear sense and explains why we need this work done.”

In February 2022, Tampa City Council voted 6-1, with Carlson opposing, to approve $1.2 million to continue exploring PURE. But seven months later, council denied a $1.2 million request and called for a "radical restart" on the PURE project. Those opposed say PURE is just Castor’s rebrand of the city’s previously failed “toilet to tap,” program. The Sierra Club opposed PURE, citing environmental and health concerns. Residents voiced concerns over trust in Castor’s administration following two current DOJ investigations.

Council members Hurtak and Charlie Miranda motioned for city staff to answer questions about PURE. Another motion by Carlson asked for information about PURE’s legislative impetus SB 64. That legislation—crafted in part by lobbyists for the City of Tampa—says cities have to refrain from wastewater discharge into bodies of water by 2032. PURE could potentially qualify for continued release under “beneficial use.”

The two PURE-related items were on Thursday’s meeting agenda but Councilman Bill Carlson motioned to continue at a later date, citing new rules. Items related to PURE must now be labeled as PURE/wastewater reuse, or the item gets automatically continued.

“The public is concerned about PURE,” Carlson said Thursday. “They want it to stop.”

City staff will present its follow-up on PURE to the city council on May 4.
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