Despite drought, Pinellas valves spit out water
By ED QUIOCO
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001
PALM HARBOR -- After countless news reports about Florida's drought, Henry Russell found it troublesome when he realized that a water valve installed by Pinellas County in his neighborhood spewed thousands of gallons of water a day into the street.
The Tampa Bay area is suffering its worst drought in dozens of years. The Floridan Aquifer, its source of drinking water, is drying up, produce is withering and lawns are dehydrated.
But until recently, the valve on Robin Avenue gushed three times a day, flooding the end of the street and sending brisk streams of water down the sides of the road to nearby drains.
The sight made it hard to take water conservation seriously, Russell said.
"You could just sense it was a heck of a lot of water getting dumped out of there," said Russell, 54, who has lived on Robin Avenue for 19 years. "It just got to me when I started seeing that release of water during the day."
Russell began monitoring the water meter next to the valve, which is attached to a Pinellas County water line, and estimated that it sent about 3,700 gallons of water a day into the gutter.
"All I heard was basically radio ads left and right, all day long, to turn off your water when you're brushing your teeth and to make sure you have a full load of laundry," Russell said. "And I'm saying, somebody ought to tell Pinellas County this."
Russell expressed his concerns to the county utility department, which had a simple explanation for the valve.
"It's a necessary component in the management of all water systems," said Pick Talley, Pinellas County director of utilities.
Robin Avenue, like many neighborhoods, has a relatively low water usage, meaning residents don't use enough water to keep it flowing through underground pipes. When water sits in the pipes for a long time, it can develop a discoloration and bad taste and smell, Talley said.
Stagnant water in pipes also runs the risk of losing the chlorine disinfectant that the county puts in the water to keep it safe for drinking.
"At some point, you lose the protection from bacteria contaminant because the disinfectant goes away," Talley said.
Valves such as the one on Robin Avenue flush water lines of stagnant water and help ensure the water is "good water," Talley said. State law also requires water systems to purge water that might have lost its disinfectant.
Some neighborhoods have valves that can be opened and closed by hand. Other areas need to be flushed more than once a day, so the county has installed automatic valves similar to the one on Robin Avenue.
"It makes sense because it saves money and manpower," Talley said.
The county has 120,000 water customers, including some cities that sell their residents water purchased from the county. The county has eight automatic valves in its system and flushes 650,000 gallons per day from its pipes to get rid of stagnant water, Talley said. That is less than 1 percent of the total amount of water the county sells every day.
Flushing water pipes is "one of the vigilant things you have do to manage a water system and protect the public's health," Talley said.
The county, which for years sent employees to Robin Avenue to open and close the valve, installed an automatic valve less than a year ago. Russell realized in March that the valve spewed water for about 15 minutes three times a day and wondered if that was a bit of "overkill," he said.
Russell called county utility workers, sent an e-mail to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, and recorded the gushing valve on video.
He suggested to county workers that flushing the valve once a day would be sufficient.
Having the valve go off three times a day probably has "better results with less water," Talley said. That is because the water keeps moving throughout the day instead of being stagnant for 24 hours.
The state's parched condition creates a balancing act between conserving water and the need for a water system to refresh water in its lines, Talley said. With all the water restrictions that have been imposed, residents are using less water. That means that more water sits in underground pipes and runs the risk of becoming stale.
"It is just one of those things that's a Catch-22," Talley said.
County workers recently adjusted the valve on Robin Avenue so it flows twice a night, flushing about 1,200 gallons. The county will monitor the water lines on Robin Avenue for problems with the new flushing schedule, Talley said.
"We wish (flushing water lines) didn't have to happen, but since it's required, it's something that we need to put up with," said Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan.
- Staff writer Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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