Tampa ponders sweet sip of (treated) sewage

Tampa ponders sweet sip of (treated) sewage

Except for a patch of grass under her 4-year-old daughter's swingset, Joelle Godwin has converted her St. Petersburg yard to native groundcover to conserve water.

Godwin also captures rainwater in a barrel, uses a tankless water heater and limits her family's showers to 10 minutes. "If you aren't done in 10 minutes, you aren't going to get any cleaner," she says.

Water conservation is a way of life for the Angie's List member, so when area water officials talk about converting wastewater into drinking water, Godwin embraces it. "That's a resource that's not getting any better," she says. "It's a natural step to go to wastewater recycling."

Indirect Potable Reuse, known informally as "Toilet to Tap," involves extracting water from raw sewage and raising it to drinking water standards. It's proposed as one solution to the Tampa area's water woes, but it must overcome the "yuck factor," as Ralph Metcalf II, Tampa Wastewater's director, calls it. The Florida Potable Reuse Committee is studying the issue.

Most people who get drinking water from a river, he says, are already ingesting what used to be wastewater. "Unless you are the first guy on the highest upstream part, you've been doing reuse without knowing it for a couple of hundred years," Metcalf says.

The Tampa area gets about 70 percent of its water from the Floridan Aquifer and 20 percent from rivers, such as the Hillsborough River. During dry spells, such as the 30-inch rain deficit from 2006 to 2009, officials start looking for alternatives.

City Councilman Charlie Miranda, who serves on the board of Tampa Bay Water and supports "Toilet to Tap," says the area has enough water for maybe seven to 10 years. "After that, it becomes very questionable whether I can continue to get the service I get now."

Already, 4,100 residents irrigate with reclaimed wastewater that's treated, but not to potable standards. But supply exceeds demand, so the city dumps about 55 million gallons a day into Tampa Bay. That's more than half the 90 million gallons Tampans use every day. Experts say it would cost at least $100 million to make it drinkable.

Angie's List member Jean Carter of Largo says she doesn't support recycling wastewater, but she would like an expansion of desalination, a process that removes excess salt and other minerals from water. About 8 percent of water disbursed by Tampa Bay Water, which serves 2.4 million people, comes from desalination. "I don't know how you are going to trust anybody to do a job like that correctly," Carter says about recycling wastewater. "That can really jeopardize a human's health and life."

Phil Compton, chairman of Friends of the [Hillsborough] River, wants more information about the water's quality. "What would still be remaining in the water and how does it compare to the water we currently have just flowing down the river?" he says, adding that pharmaceuticals are of a particular concern to him.

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