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Bargain flows to South Tampa

The city's first reclaimed water lines will deliver "where most people ... irrigate the most," the mayor says.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2000


TAMPA -- Residents in some of Tampa's swankiest neighborhoods are being offered a cheap and plentiful water supply to keep their lawns and gardens green.

The city's first reclaimed water project will deliver highly treated wastewater to a slice of South Tampa that includes Davis Islands, Hyde Park, Palma Ceia and the West Shore area.

Customers will pay less than they do to irrigate with potable water. And those who sign up before Sept. 1 won't pay the city a dime for hooking up to the new system, expected to begin operating in 2003.

Pinellas and unincorporated Hillsborough County residents can pay more than $2,000 to connect to reclaimed water systems.

The city can make such a good offer in part because the federal government is covering just over half the cost of the $21-million pilot project, officials said Thursday.

Mayor Dick Greco said neighborhoods were selected for their proximity to the Howard F. Curren Wastewater Treatment Plant on Hooker's Point and their residents' history of heavy lawn watering.

"It's the most logical place to go -- where most people ... irrigate the most," he said. "It should be a no-brainer."

The city will pay its share of the construction costs with bonds backed by revenues from reclaimed water. Customers will pay less per gallon for reclaimed water but will likely use more of it because they can irrigate any day, said Ralph Metcalf, sanitary sewer director.

City officials will proceed with the project only if they sign up about half the customers in the area by Sept. 1, said Ron Rotella, a consultant to Greco. Water customers living outside the service area won't subsidize the system, he said.

"We will only go forward if ... it pays for itself," Rotella said.

City Hall officials are going all out to make sure that happens.

The system will save 8-million gallons of potable water now used for outdoor irrigation each day, Greco said at a news conference in his office.

The city hired a public relations firm to design colorful pamphlets with the message "Water More. Spend Less." Every water customer in the service area will receive one in the mail.

The South Tampa Area Reclaimed project also has its own Web site, http://www.starwater.org, and telephone hotline, (813) 282-7827.

Unlike their Tampa Bay neighbors who are accustomed to reclaimed water, Tampa residents have lots of questions about watering with the stuff, said Deanne Roberts of Roberts Communications and Marketing.

"Can children play on the grass? Can my dog drink the puddle of water that comes out the meters?" she said. The answer to both is yes, Roberts said.

Residents who sign up before Sept. 1 get a free water meter, which will cost $350 after the deadline. Businesses will receive a $350 credit on a commercial meter.

Each gallon will cost 20 percent less than potable water charged at the "conservation rate," a premium paid by heavy water consumers.

Customers must send the city a $50 deposit that will be placed in an interest-bearing escrow account and applied to their reclaimed water bill. If the system isn't built, the deposit will be returned with interest.

Construction is expected to start in mid-2001 and run for 18 months, Metcalf said. Crews will run 2- to 4-inch diameter pipes down each street of the service area.

Maps showed a "future phasing" of the system to neighborhoods north toward Tampa International Airport and farther south on the Interbay Peninsula.

But city officials couldn't say when -- or even if -- reclaimed water will be available there or in other parts of Tampa.

That depends on how well the pilot program works and whether federal or state money will be available for constructions costs, Metcalf said.

Another pilot program, curbside recycling, was launched in affluent South Tampa neighborhoods in 1989 with plans to expand it throughout the city.

Today, two of three city garbage customers don't have it, and there are no expansion plans in the works.

City Council member Bob Buckhorn, who wrote the city its first $50 check Thursday for STAR service at his Davis Islands home, acknowledged that neighborhoods left without reclaimed water could also have hard feelings.

"But it serves a number of purposes, like reducing demand for potable water," he said. "If we're going to see it make sense, this is where we got to do it."

- Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384, or at huettel@sptimes.com.

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