Toilet to Tap: Will Tampa Be Next to Use Reclaimed Water for Drinking?

People often cringe at the thought of water that was once wastewater being treated and used as drinking water.  However, in Tampa, Florida, voters will be deciding next year on whether to use reclaimed water as part of the city's drinking water.

Reclaimed water is highly treated wastewater that is often used as a replacement for potable water for irrigation and industrial needs.  It is clear, orderless, and sometimes can be made cleaner than water naturally found in wells (water that people think of as safe to drink).  At this time, reclaimed water is only used for irrigation purposes, being used in large part for golf courses. It is also significantly cheaper than the potable water sources, which makes it an attractive alternative in irrigation to many people (in Florida, irrigation is as much as 50% of the total water use of a family).  However, many people do not think it is safe to come in contact with reclaimed water because it can contain nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in higher than normal levels.  Not all reclaimed water has these elevated levels though - in Orange County, California, reclaimed water has been used indirectly for drinking.  Reclaimed water there is used in their groundwater replenishment program, in which they highly treat wastewater and inject it into the aquifer to filter down, helping prevent future water shortages.  this example demonstrates that reclaimed water can be made clean enough so that is can be used for potable uses.

In Tampa, 55 million gallons of reclaimed water is deposited into the Tampa Bay every day, which is harmful to marine life. There will also soon be regulations about how much of this reclaimed water can be deposited into the bay, meaning the city will soon have excess reclaimed water with no way of storing or using it.  Using this water would not only be beneficial to the marine life in the bay, but it would also reduce the stress on the aquifer, reservoir, and desalination plant, which all have been experienceing issues lateley.  Reclaimed water is already used in a small percentage for lawn watering in the city, but the service is not available everywhere and is not used to the extent it could be.

On the 2010 ballot, water customers will be able to vote on whether they are interested in the concept of using reclaimed water in the drinking supply.  Even if the vote passes, it is not certain that it will actually occur.  The plant would have to undergo a $100 million upgrade to make it capable of producing water that is of drinking standard.  After that, the water would need to go under many tests to ensure it is actually safe to drink.  It will be interesting to see if other cities will soon go on this path of making reclaimed water into potable water - the voters in Tampa Bay may be some of the first.


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