Tampa Bay columnists
Mary Jo Melone
World & Nation
AP The Wire
Comics & Games
Home & Garden
Advertise with the Times
By JACKIE RIPLEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000
"We are keeping our fingers crossed," Bill Fiedler said. "You go out and spend a lot on fertilizers but without any water, it's all useless."
That seems to be the consensus among many homeowners who are watching their lawns wither despite expensive sprinkling systems and triple-digit water bills. And now with tighter water restrictions further hampering lawn care, reclaimed water is looking more and more desirable.
"I'd love to have it," said Michael Molligan, who lives in Original Carrollwood and is the spokesman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "At one time you had to convince people of the value of it. Now people understand it, and most people really want it."
After sewage gets cleaned up at a waste water treatment plant, and dosed with chlorine, the resulting water is not clean enough for drinking but it's perfect for lawn irrigation. Because it is not subject to watering restrictions people are clamoring for reclaimed water, so much so that officials are hard pressed to keep up with the demand.
"It is unacceptable that we should have to wait three years for this service in this day of water shortages and calls for reduced usage," Fawn Ridge resident David Nobles wrote to Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman. "The county should be working overtime to insure that communities that have made the effort and passed this initiative are supplied with this service in a timely manner."
In fact, officials are doing just that. As of December, the county was providing reclaimed water to about 4,400 residential customers in northwest Hillsborough, and another 340 residents around greater Brandon and Sun City Center.
The county encourages developers to build in the supply lines for reclaimed water at new subdivisions, a much cheaper process than retrofitting the pipes afterward.
"The developers who have vision and are close to the transmission line are offering reclaimed water," said Jim Holland, the county's reclaimed water manager. "To me it's an incredible marketing tool."
TRASH OR TREASURE?
Thirty years ago wastewater was just that, waste that was unceremoniously dumped into public waterways. Eventually power companies and golf courses recognized its value and became high consumption users. Soon reclaimed water became not only acceptable for use on residential lawns and common areas, but desirable.
Though there are considerable up-front costs for pipelines to bring the reclaimed water to neighborhoods, once it's there, homeowners can water as much as they want for a base charge of $7.50 a month.
In 1990 Carrollwood Village was to have been the prototype for the county's reclaimed water program until officials determined the project was too expensive. But homeowners had had a taste, so to speak, of the notion of reclaimed water, and were eager for unlimited lawn sprinkling.
"Residents said they were willing to pay for part of it," said Carol Awad, county senior engineer for reclaimed water planning. "Everybody wanted to hook into it."
Thus the county's reclaimed water project was born, evolving into a program that provides reclaimed water to neighborhoods if they meet certain criteria.
They must be close to recycled water transmission lines and get at least 51 percent of the homeowners to sign a petition saying they want reclaimed water.
The community investment tax covers the cost of bringing reclaimed water lines to a subdivision. But residents must pay for additional pipes within the subdivision and to their individual lots That can cost plenty, anywhere from $200 to $400 in annual payments over 20 years.
A public hearing is held before the County Commission so residents can be heard. The commission has the final say.
TRYING TO MEET DEMAND 'We're using all the reclaimed water we have,' said Holland, Hillsborough's reclaimed water manager. 'We would like to accommodate more people but it takes four or five homes to give one home reclaimed water.'
Consequently, county officials have undertaken aquifer storage and recovery, or ASR, a program to store reclaimed water during the rainy season for use during the drier winter and spring months. The deep storage wells are west of Sheldon Road and north of Waters Avenue along Channel A.
"There has been a lot of activity regarding storage of drinking water in the ground," said Brian Page, a county environmental engineer. But no one was trying to store recycled wastewater.
"When (Hillsborough's) program was conceived a couple of years ago it was the first of its kind in the nation," Page said.
If successful, Hillsborough's ASR could double the supply of reclaimed water, up to an extra 6-million gallons a day, Awad said.
In the ASR program, reclaimed water would be pumped deep into the ground, but not deep enough to pierce a confining layer of clay that protects the deep Floridan aquifer. The injected water remains bubbled in one area, confined due to the hydrological elements of the ground water system, so that when water is pumped out it is the same water that had been pumped in.
"There is a huge storage capacity in there, hundreds of millions of gallons," Awad said.
The project, which is in its early stages, will be monitored by the state Department of Environmental Protection to ensure the reclaimed water does not taint the aquifer. "We're proceeding very slowly and very cautiously so there's no negative impact on the aquifer," Page said.
The county hopes to receive DEP approval for the program by August 2001, Page said.
If successful, storage wells could be added to other sites.
On another front, the Southwest Florida Water Management District has allocated nearly $134-million to develop 187-million gallons of reclaimed water a day through the 16-county district, Molligan said.
Because most single-family homes use 30 percent to 55 percent of their water consumption for outdoor use, "reclaimed water could reduce the demand and reduce the stress on the system," Molligan said.
But it has had to accommodate so many new customers in the last six years, county officials need to wait until proposed projects are fully developed before promising to bring any more residents on line.
"We need to see where we're at," Awad said. "We don't want to over obligate."
The potential for build out in Hillsborough County over the next 10 to 15 years is about 17,000 residential customers, Awad said.
Waste water from around northwest Hillsborough gets pumped into four area treatment plants, where it is treated and then pumped to reclaimed water facilities. Those plants are the Dale Mabry Wastewater Treatment Plant, the River Oaks Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Northwest Regional Wastewater Reclamation Facility and the Van Dyke Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Pasco County has a countywide reclaimed water system serving about 7,000 single residential customers, a dozen golf courses and thousands of acres of citrus groves, said Doug Bramlett, utilities director.
"We have a very aggressive reclaimed water program here," Bramlett said. "We're 12 years into it now."
St. Petersburg residents have been using reclaimed water since 1976, and today, about 10,000 use the system that could supply 17,000 homes.
The city of Tampa, meanwhile, is just getting into the residential reclaimed water business with its South Tampa Area Reuse project, expected to serve about 2,000 residential customers and be on line in about three years, said Dave Tippin, city Water Department director.
In Pinellas County, officials are buying extra reclaimed water from Oldsmar and Clearwater because residents of unincorporated areas want more of it.
As popular as it is, reclaimed water is not for everyone. At Van Dyke Farms, residents have been at odds over a plan to bring reclaimed water to their subdivision.
"It's never going to happen here," said resident Joe Episcopo, who led the opposition. A recent poll indicated the community was "three to one against reclaimed water," he said.
Those opposed have argued that wells are more economical than reclaimed water.
"Van Dyke Farms was an anomaly," Holland said. And despite the controversy, the design work on the system is almost complete, leaving only the public hearing before county commissioners.
"What it boils down to is that if the homeowner's water bill is not more than $90 a month, they normally do not use enough potable water to justify distribution lines," Holland said. But if homeowners "are paying $150, $275 water bills then reclaimed water if definitely desireable."
* * *
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.