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City officials wishing on STAR

The city isn't generating as much money as it hoped for with its beleaguered reclaimed water system.

By JANET ZINK
Published June 4, 2005


TAMPA - The week's rains have been wet relief for Tampa homeowners cringing at parched lawns.

But some city officials say what people really need is a good drought.

Maybe then they'd connect to the city's new reclaimed water system.

Back in 2000, in the midst of an unusually dry period when restrictions limited lawn watering to one day a week, thousands said they'd pay to connect to reclaimed water pipes. The connection would give them the privilege of unlimited lawn watering without endangering precious drinking water supplies.

But so far, only 22 percent of the 5,000 people who could have made the connection and started paying for the water have actually done so.

That means the city isn't generating as much money as it had hoped to pay for a $13.5-million construction loan. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also kicked in $15-million for the project.

"We're not trying to make money on the reclaimed water. We're just trying to cover our costs" said Mike Bennett, director of the city water department.

The $56-million South Tampa Area Reclaimed water project, or STAR, eventually will bring highly-treated wastewater to more than 19,000 customers in Tampa, who can use it to water lawns or wash cars.

The city cleans about 60-million gallons a day of sewer water at the Howard F. Curren Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant at Hooker's Point. Most of it is dumped into Hillsborough Bay.

Former Mayor Dick Greco approved the $28-million first phase of STAR under conditions that it be voluntary and ultimately pay for itself.

The first phase of STAR, which will reach 10,000 properties, has faced problems all along the way. It's been behind schedule and over budget. Construction workers damaged a major sewer pipe. They irritated homeowners whose streets were torn up for months. A contractor left a job site and is now in a lawsuit with the city for breach of contract.

Construction was supposed to be completed in December 2003. Pipes are still under way in Palma Ceia, Beach Park, Culbreath Isles, Culbreath Bayou and the West Shore business district.

But the service is now available on Davis Islands and in Hyde Park.

More than 3,000 people in those neighborhoods filled out applications for reclaimed water service during a special sign-up window several years ago. Only 1,117 customers actually connected to the service.

Some of those who signed up early enough, got free irrigation meters when the main pipes were installed. The water department recently sent letters to Davis Islands residents, encouraging them to connect and warning that if they don't, their irrigation meters might be removed for use elsewhere.

The city surveyed Davis Islands residents to find out why they haven't connected. Eleven percent said they were concerned about reliability; 26 percent cited cost concerns; and 39 percent said they just hadn't gotten around to it.

If rain were less abundant, more people might have "gotten around to it," city officials say.

To get reclaimed water in Tampa, property owners pay $375 to connect an irrigation meter to city lines, plus a $41.50 permitting fee. Customers also have to hire a plumber or do their own plumbing work to link from the meter to their yards. That can cost from $150 to $1,500.

Afterward, customers pay $1.79 for every 1,000 gallons they use.

Potable water costs $1.29 per 1,000 gallons for the first 3,700 gallons used; $1.60 for the next 6,000 gallons; and $2.70 per 1,000 for more than 9,700 gallons.

The typical homeowner uses between 7,500 and 13,000 gallons of potable water a month.

"It didn't come out the way we'd like for it to come out," said Steve Daignault, the city's administrator for public works and utilities.

"If the cost of the reused water was significantly lower, like a third of the cost of the potable, then people would say "I can save some money, I might as well hook up."'

For now, with plenty of rain and watering restrictions eased, the only incentive for using reclaimed water is a sense of duty to save water.

"Somebody still has to pay the cost for putting the dang system in," Daignault said. "We're sucking a little wind here."

The debt service on the $13.5-million construction bond for STAR I is about $1-million a year. In the first six months of the fiscal year, the program earned $35,000, according to city finance director Bonnie Wise.

Still, she's hopeful. More than $30,000 came in the past three months.

"We're seeing a big increase," she said.

Meanwhile, Wise said, money generated by potable water is "loaning STAR this money until STAR generates enough for itself."

Still, the city has started the selection process for a contractor for STAR II, which will take reclaimed water to another 9,000 customers south to El Prado Boulevard and north near Columbus Avenue. The Southwest Florida Water Management District has committed $15-million to the project and the city will pay for it with another $15-million bond.

The city is considering options for making the second phase more successful.

"If there's a better way to approach STAR II, we'll look at that before we start the sign-up campaign," Bennett said. "Everything will be back on the table for discussion."

City officials are also looking into requiring developers of large projects - such as the Georgetown Apartments, former Imperial Yacht Basin and Westshore Yacht Club properties near Gandy Boulevard - to install reclaimed water pipes. STAR II will not reach those projects, but if the homes there had lines, it would be relatively inexpensive to extend the system south to them, Daignault said.

"Then we wouldn't have to charge the people to put the pipe in and they could just sign up and be customers," he said.

Developers of The Heights near downtown have said they'll put in reclaimed water pipes even though there's no main city system that will reach the project.

"They're doing it because they're smart developers and they recognize it's good for their customers," said City Council member John Dingfelder, who at a council meeting in May floated the idea of making reclaimed water pipes a requirement for big developments. "It's an amenity."

Daignault sees it as good planning.

"The biggest, absolutely biggest thing for the whole entire city is this: We have a limited potable water supply," Daignault said. "Every single residence that we get off of potable and onto reused water is potable water that we put into the bank for the city's future."

--Janet Zink can be reached at 813 226-3401 or jzink@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 4, 2005, 06:14:28]


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