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Recycled water called a wasted opportunity

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- The city of Brooksville has an efficient and environmentally responsible method of disposing of the treated water that comes from its sewage plant.

It is piped directly to Florida Crushed Stone Co., where it enters the huge pool of water the plant uses to process crushed limestone.

Unlike some cities that are praised for their water reuse program -- St. Petersburg, for example -- 100 percent of Brooksville's water is reclaimed. And every gallon saved is a gallon that doesn't have to be pumped from the aquifer.

There's only one problem, says Brooksville City Council member Joe Bernardini: The city should be receiving money for its reused water, not shelling out funds to Florida Crushed Stone to take it.

"I don't think we should pay them to take the water," Bernardini said.

Experts on the subject have said that a city paying a company to take its reclaimed water is highly unusual and maybe unique in Florida. Bernardini opposed the arrangement for that reason when the city entered into it 11 years ago. Last week, Bernardini asked city staffers to re-examine the agreement because of the ongoing drought and increased development around Brooksville.

Considering the extended dry period and increased demand, the water should be viewed a valuable resource, Bernardini said. The city should investigate shipping it to businesses and homeowners that are willing to pay for it, and should do so before more building and development takes place, not after.

"I've always been interested in the reuse scenario," Bernardini said after Monday night's City Council meeting. "With the water crunch that we're having and (the Southwest Florida Water Management District) saying it won't get better at least until the summer, I thought it would be a good time to look into it."

Maybe so, said Public Works Director Emory Pierce, but setting up a distribution system would still be hugely expensive. From what he's found out so far, Pierce said, he does not think a new system would be economically feasible, though that might change as the water shortage grows more acute.

"Reuse is a coming thing, and eventually we'll have to get into it," Pierce said.

But the costs can be huge because reuse requires setting up a duplicate water system just so people can irrigate their lawns. The city would also have to spend money on an additional filter at its plant because wastewater used for home irrigation must be purer than the water sent to the mine.

Also, even though the city pays Florida Crushed Stone to take the water, that method of disposal is cheaper than many others, Pierce said.

The city spent about $2.7-million to lay the lines to the mine just northwest of the city, almost five times the anticipated price. (The cost overrun was one of the main reasons the city had to seek a federal loan to pay for its new, year-old sewage treatment plant.)

The city also pays the company $100 for every million gallons it takes, and its plant produces more than 1-million gallons per day. The annual bill is about $40,000 per year. That would come to $1.2-million over the life of the 30-year contract, or more if the amount of treated wastewater increases, as it almost certainly will.

But other methods of disposal, such as percolation ponds or spray irrigation fields, require large areas of land, said City Manager Richard Anderson. Injecting the water back into the ground, common in urban areas where land is scarce, brings high power bills.

"Other people are paying more and they're wasting it," he said. "I don't look at (the Florida Crushed Stone agreement) as a negative."

The city agreed to pay Florida Crushed Stone to take the water in 1990 partly because the state was demanding that Brooksville change its method of wastewater disposal. The water from one of its plants was dumped into a quarry at Tom Varn Park that led directly to the aquifer; the water from another was pumped into percolation ponds built over the old city dump and was carrying toxins into the groundwater.

Anderson said that the city probably would not agree to pay the company to take the water now, and may consider renegotiating the contract in the future, especially because the company will rely on this source of water more and more in the future.

Though representatives from Florida Crushed Stone were not available to comment for this story Friday, in the past they have said they do not need the water. They are permitted by Swiftmud to pump more groundwater than they have used, and the cost of pumping has been minimal.

That has changed somewhat. The mine's permit now allows it to pump 6.7-million gallons per day, compared to 15.3-million gallons as recently as 1987. It actually pumps an average of 3.8-million gallons per day, said Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan.

Patricia Anderson is the assistant director for public utilities in St. Petersburg, which has had a water reuse system in place for about 20 years. True, Anderson said, it was extremely expensive, though federal grants paid for almost all of it. And even now, the money it generates, about $1-million per year, does not cover the operating costs.

But, she said, it has other advantages. For one, it cuts by about 50 percent the demand on the St. Petersburg water system.

"If we had to replace our reclaimed water with potable water, we wouldn't be able to do it," she said.

And, though the federal grants that paid for St. Petersburg's system are no longer available, low-interest loans from the state are. Also, Molligan said, Swiftmud will pay for half of a water reuse program after a project is completed.

Certainly, said Richard Anderson, the Brooksville city manager, the city will have to keep examining the situation.

"It justifies continued monitoring. As the scarcity of water drives up the price, there will come a point where there's some economic viability," he said.

Considering the city's past record with utility projects, it probably wouldn't hurt to get started soon, Bernardini said.

"How long did it take us to build a sewer plant? Twenty years?"

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