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Tampa Is Thirsty For More Drinking Water

Hillsborough River dam
Southwest Florida Water Management District
Tampa's water purchase comes after withdrawals from the Hillsborough River reservoirs. COURTESY SOUTHWEST FLORIDA WATER MANAGEMENT DISTRICT

Beginning in January 2020, the Tampa Water Department anticipates purchasing more water from Tampa Bay Water. That could end up increasing fees charged to customers.

The purchase comes after withdrawals from the Hillsborough River reservoirs increased almost to the permitted limit, while Tampa's population booms.

In the past, the city used Tampa Bay Water during drought conditions only, but now, because of the increasing water demand, Tampa officials say they have no choice but to turn to the organization again.

According to a statement from the department, the purchase “will help Tampa continue to meet withdrawal limits included in the City’s permit issued by the Southwest Florida Water Management District to withdraw up to 82 million gallons of water daily from the Hillsborough River to meet Tampa’s drinking water demands.”

Chuck Weber, Tampa Water Department Director, said this is a part of a water use trend for the area.

“The water demand… has been rising steadily over the years,” Weber said. “Currently our permit is 82 million gallons a day, and we are just over 80 million gallons a day on our annually average. We need to recharge our aquifer storage and recovery wells and if we were to recharge those completely before the spring drought, we would end up exceeding our 82 mgd (millions of gallons a day) permit.”

While Tampa primarily gets its drinking water from the Hillsborough River, most of Tampa Bay Water's supply comes from the underground aquifer.

According to its website, Tampa Bay Water is a “non-profit, special district of the State of Florida created to plan, develop and deliver a high-quality drinking water supply, and… work to protect our water supply sources.”

Chuck Carden, CEO of Tampa Bay Water, says this kind of request is not unusual.

“This is not out of the usual, this is very normal,” Carden says. “We plan for them to buy water from us every year, they don’t always… they let us know, we are only a phone call away.”

Tampa Water customers can expect additional charges on their utility bill listed as “TBW Pass-Through”. The per-unit cost will be calculated from the total cost of the purchases from Tampa Bay Water, according to the release.

“How much each customer will see will be based on their individual water use, and it will be a percentage essentially of their water use,” Weber said. "Its a very rough number... we won't know until we actually have the purchases. The way it's calculated depends on exactly how many gallons are purchased and what the offset is."

In September, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor removed a request for $300 million that would have funded a project that would take treated wastewater that now flows into Tampa Bay and pump it into the underground aquifer. It would then be re-pumped into the city's reservoir before being treated again as drinking water. The move came after  city council members voted 5-2 to request the reuse project be taken out of the city budget.

The plan came under fire from the regional water supply authority,  in part because of concerns about its impact to the environment. Some members of Tampa Bay Water said allowing Tampa to become self-sufficient could undermine the agreement tying together the water supplies of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

Adam Bakst is a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for summer 2019.