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Jane Castor might be headed for a political mess on turning sewage into drinking water

TAMPA - Could Tampa Mayor Jane Castor's first big battle with a largely new City Council be about a program to turn sewage into drinking water?

First the facts: Under the program, only highly-treated reclaimed water - 50 million gallons of which are currently being dumped legally into Tampa Bay - would be injected into the Florida Aquifer and then pulled back up to be pumped into the Hillsborough River and adjacent canals, vastly increasing the city's water supply.

Tampa officials say the resulting water would be safe to drink. Opponents, including the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters and, perhaps, several new council members, say environmental questions remain. They are wondering why the city needs to proceed with a $350 million project without vetting other options.

On Thursday, the issue surfaced again as the Castor administration pulled a $661,105 request for public outreach for what the city dubs the "Tampa Augmentation Project," or TAP, and critics deride as "toilet-to-tap." The new mayor simply didn't have the votes.

In late June, the council had deadlocked over authorizing the money. Council members John Dingfelder, Orlando Gudes and Guido Maniscalco voted against it, forcing a new vote Thursday with opponent Bill Carlson, who was absent for the June 27 vote, poised to send the request down in flames.

Late Wednesday, Castor's chief of staff Dennis Rogero called Carlson to say the mayor was going to come back in late August or early September with a more comprehensive look at increasing the city's water supply and would pull the request.

Carlson applauded the move, which he had pushed for behind the scenes.

"We need to insert integrity, transparency and accountability into this process," Carlson told the Tampa Bay Times before Thursday's meeting.

Castor spokeswoman Ashley Bauman emailed a statement.

"We will continue to work with the community and members of council to find the best process to ensure Tampa's water supply is sustainable,'' the statement said. "There is no reason taxpayers should have to spend additional money to purchase water when we release 50 million gallons of purified water into the bay a day."

Gudes was talking to a Times reporter minutes before the meeting when Castor called him from New York City, where she is attending a series of events hosted by philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, to say she was pulling the item.

Gudes is widely considered the swing vote on the seven-member council. The first-term member represents the city's only majority-black district, which covers much of East and West Tampa, including downtown.

He said he had concerns about the lack of outreach being done for the program so far. And he wants to learn more about the other options, he said, which include buying water from Tampa Bay Water, the regional utility to which Tampa, St. Petersburg and Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties belong.

Last month, Tampa Bay Water's board nixed a request by Tampa for more time on a $1.6 million request to help pay for a feasibility study. The city withdrew its request, said board member Darden Rice, after board members asked for more access and oversight to some of the data.

On Thursday, Rice, who worries the project could lead to higher water rates for St. Petersburg residents along with environmental consequences for the region, reacted to the news on social media.

"Tampa wanted another year and to limit ability for (Tampa Bay Water) to evaluate their reports. TBW said no, we're sticking to our original offer. Tampa abruptly withdrew consideration for the $1.6m that was on the table,' Rice tweeted. "Essentially, Tampa traded transparency for money. That is what happened."

The next fight? Castor is due to bring a more than $1 billion budget to council on Aug. 1. Carlson and others have already signaled they're not inclined to vote for much wastewater reuse funding.

Budget chief Sonya Little said the budget hasn't been finalized, but about $527,000 can be linked to the wastewater reuuse project. She said it was at least the second year funds had been set aside for it as part of the city's long-term planning efforts.

Public Works Administrator Brad Baird said the city has been studying alternative sources of drinking water for forty years. Other options touted by Carlson, including increasing the city's purchases from Tampa Bay Water, aren't as efficient, said Water Director Chuck Weber.

Castor needs at least one of the four opponents' votes to pass her budget. Although the proposed increases in sewer and water rates do include money for the reuse project, the council will consider the increases separately, likely as a budget amendment, Bauman said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago

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