Using Water More Than Once

July 1, 2009

It’s rare for a project to satisfy multiple parties and alleviate a range of environmental concerns, but for one water reuse project in South Florida, the benefits are various and sundry. From reducing demand on potable water, to improving coastal water quality and even helping to guard against salt water intrusion, the city of Boca Raton’s reclaimed water initiative illustrates that regulators, municipalities, and private industry can collaborate with everyone’s interest at heart.

“Boca Raton is setting a great example in an area that has lagged behind the rest of the state in reuse,” says Mark Elsner, P.E., a director in the water supply department of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). “Reuse is an integral part of water resources management, wastewater management, and ecosystem management in Florida. It reduces demands on valuable surface and groundwater used for drinking water sources, eliminates discharges that may pollute valuable surface waters, recharges groundwater, and postpones costly investment for development of new water sources and supplies.”

Man’s Hand
With 53 inches of rainfall annually, how is it that South Florida isn’t awash in water? At one time, it was. Where summer showers once fell on swamps and slowly replenished underlying aquifers, the quick-and-plentiful rains are now channeled away from residents and businesses through storm drains and canals that border shopping centers and cut through subdivisions. As the population rises and irrigation continues to draw water, supply management becomes more crucial.

The coastal community of Boca Raton spans 29 square miles of mainland and spits of land wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and Intercoastal Waterway. It is home to a population of 86,000 people, along with affluent gated communities and high-end golf and country clubs. And until severe droughts in 2001, and another in 2007, water was considered bountiful.

In 2001, water levels in Lake Okeechobee dropped to a record low of 8.97 feet, this in a lake with an average depth of 9 feet. Lake Okeechobee, covering 730 square miles, is the second largest lake in the US. Its drainage basin spans 4,600 square miles, and it’s a source of drinking water for lakeside communities and a backup supply for others in the southeastern part of the state, like the city of Boca Raton.

The 2007 drought saw similar low water levels, further straining water supplies and leaving channel markers in the lake high and dry. It also instigated mandatory Phase II water restrictions, which are only implemented during severe drought. In an effort to shrink demand by 30%, watering was restricted to limited times–twice a week for residents and businesses, including golf courses. For the 22 golf courses in Boca Raton, this meant the rough was truly rough–and brown.

Water is provided by the City of Boca Raton Utility Services, but water management for the city is under the authority of the SFWMD. The SFWMD is one of five water management districts in Florida, and is responsible for water quality, flood control, water supply, and environmental restoration. It’s the oldest and largest district, and spans the southern tip of the state from Orlando to The Florida Keys. The city of Boca Raton, within Palm Beach County, lies within an area designed as the Lower East Coast (LEC), for water supply planning. Other areas within the SFWMD’s jurisdiction surround Lake Okeechobee and include the Kissimmee Basin, Upper East Coast, and Lower West Coast.

The LEC spans 6,100 square miles and, along with Palm Beach County, includes Miami-Dade County, most of Monroe County, and the eastern portions of Hendry and Collier Counties. Water in the LEC is supplied by the surficial aquifer system and the Biscayne Aquifer, along with surface water from the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee.

The census reported a population in the LEC area of 5.6 million in 2005. By 2025, this number is expected to increase to 7.3 million. Florida law mandates water supply planning across the state and the 2005–2006 Lower East Coast Water Supply Plan Update is the most recent document concerning Palm Beach County and Boca Raton, and summarizes the planning efforts that will ensure an adequate water supply for future generations.

According to the plan, in the next 20 years, an additional 305 million gallons of water will be needed to meet demands. While water conservation is a noble goal, the district is also honing in on alternative water sources, including the use of brackish water, storage of wet weather flows, and the use of reclaimed (reuse) water.

“Water reuse involves taking domestic wastewater, giving it a high degree of treatment, and using the resulting high-quality reclaimed water for a new, beneficial purpose,” says Elsner. “Extensive treatment and disinfection ensure that public health and environmental quality are protected.”

Even today, the SFWMD continues to impose water restrictions on the region. Homeowners are restricted to watering during limited times, two days a week. For the time being, golf courses have a reprieve and are allowed to water without filing reports of fear of fines, but if severe drought hits again, not even golf courses will remain unscathed.

Getting to 100
Even before the droughts, the city of Boca Raton implemented the use of reclaimed water for irrigation. In the early 1990s, the program named IRIS (In-City Reclamation Irrigation System) was implemented, with the intention to reduce the overall per capita use of potable water. In a state that routinely uses 135 to 180 gallons of water per capita day (gal/cap-day), Boca Raton residents were using on average 425 gal/cap-day–much of it going to water lush lawns and maintain hands-on landscapes.

“In the 1990s, we wanted to see how we could reduce the demand. Initially, residential reuse went to properties with larger homes and larger lawns,” explains Chris Helfrich, utility services director for the city of Boca Raton.

“Many of these homes were along the coast and were using 1,000 to 2,000 gallons of water a day,” he adds. “Today we’re using less than 330 gallons per capita day.”

The volume of water used is still well above the state average, but is diminishing. Beyond reducing overall demand on potable water, utilizing reclaimed water in along the coast has the ancillary benefit of preventing salt water intrusion. Originally, the move to increase the amount of reclaimed water used lacked momentum, but the recent droughts have helped propel it.

Since the original project, Helfrich has witnessed a change in public perception and reclaimed water has moved from a waste product to a commodity. “Over the next 10 years, there was a paradigm shift,” he says. “Before, a subdivision was a disposal method. Residents were charged a fixed amount a month–$10 for two months, for an unlimited amount of water. Now it’s a commodity, and we charge per thousand gallons used, so people will reduce their usage.”

In 2008, an inverted tiered rate structure was passed, that increases the cost of water used as the volume increases.

An expansion to the existing system is currently underway and will include additions to the tertiary wastewater treatment system and an increase in storage capacity.

“The construction is scheduled to be complete by the summer of 2010,” says Helfrich. “We should have 100% reuse by 2014.”

When it came to targeting potential reclaimed water users, the city reviewed consumptive use permits issued by the SFWMD to find the largest users.

“The city had already done research,” says Rene Mathews P.E., president of Mathews Consulting Inc. of West Palm Beach. Mathews’ company was hired by the city to prepare the design and permitting, and provide bidding and construction services, for an offsite storage and pumping facility that is part of the reclamation expansion.

“They gave us a list to run with,” says Mathews. “Targets include two different areas of Lynn University that use 660,000 gallons a day and 330,000 gallons a day, Patch Reef Park that uses 150,000 gallons a day, Patch Reef Estates that uses 100,000 gallons per day, Pope John Paul High School that uses 150,000 gallons a day, and Broken Sound West and East that use 1 million gallons a day and 700,000 gallons a day. These are just targets; there’s no guarantee they’ll connect.”

Design of the system has been lively. “When the pipe is installed, not all targets will connect, but others along the line will see the benefit and will ask to hook up,” adds Mathews. “It makes for a dynamic design. Because of that, we designed the pump station with flexibility–not just initial projections, but flexibility to add another pump and expand. “

Creative Storage
Unlike the existing system that incorporated residential use, the expansion project targets golf courses, other high-demand users, including users that maintain surface water bodies on their property.

“We have six million gallons of storage, but as we were going through our expansion, we realized we would need an additional five million gallons of storage,” says Helfrich. “The golf courses, we are providing to have lakes and ponds with storage capacity. Golf courses and communities with lakes get the lowest-rate tier structure, because they provide storage and pressure to distribute the water. They could be paying $0.75 per gallon over 25,000 gallons. But if they provide storage, they will pay $0.40 per gallon.”

The city will install a storage system for tertiary treated water, but will depend on golf courses too. Storing water on the golf course property works well because of the inverse relationship between supply and demand. Golf courses generally irrigate between the hours of two and seven a.m., when wastewater flows are at their lowest. Filling up lakes during the day allows them to be tapped when water is needed.

“The storage of water on golf courses allows us to deliver over a longer period of time,” says Mathews. “Users have a window when they’ll use reclaimed water. Without onsite storage, we have to deliver within that window. When they have onsite storage, that window is expanded.”

Mathews gave the example that a golf course without storage could have a potential window of eight to 12 hours. With available onsite storage, this window could increase up to 20 hours. Because of this, savings are seen on both the pumps, because smaller horsepower equipment can be used, and storage with less capacity is needed to be constructed.

“It’s a balance,” says Mathews. “People have always designed them to meet peak hour. By optimizing existing systems, you can potentially eliminate the need to expand a pump station.”

To ensure that those getting the lowest rate are accepting the water and providing storage, remote valves will be used to control flow and then shut off when an agreed-to amount has been received.

One course accepting the deal is Broken Sound Club, home to two golf courses–one of which holds a televised tournament every February. John Crean is the chief operating officer at the club. “We hold the Allianz Championship; 1.6 million people watch it on TV, and the golf channel picks it up,” says Crean. “Viewers want to look at green grass.”

As important as healthy grass is to a golf course, utilizing the reclaimed water is part of a larger effort initiated by the club. “We’re trying to be stewards of the environment, and it’s good business, because we don’t want the grass to go brown,” says Crean. “Put it this way, there’s 20 million flushes in the City of Boca Raton, and now only 40% is reclaimed. We’re helping increase that to 95% or 99%.”

The use of reclaimed water isn’t without expense. “But we’ll be paying for water now, and we didn’t before,” says Crean. “When construction is complete, we’ll pay $240,000 a year for reclaimed water at both courses.”

Eliminating Ocean Outfalls
Crean has been involved in negotiations with the city and regulators for years. “Not only will we be able to water when the water management district puts restrictive phases on golf courses, the club is trying to be environmentally sensitive,” he says. “We’ve gotten rid of Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles, and we’re looking at solar. We’re helping increase the amount that’s reclaimed, instead of the water going to the ocean off the coast of Boca Raton.”

Boca Raton, along with six other publicly owned treatment plants along the southeastern coast of Florida, discharge 300 million gallons a day (mgd) of treated effluent into the Atlantic Ocean. Evidence suggests that land-based sources of pollutants, such as wastewater effluent, are impacting the health of the offshore coral reefs. Legislation passed in 2008 will phase out the use of ocean outfalls, with an exception for wet weather discharge, while increasing wastewater reclamation.

Elsner explains, “Increased reuse in Boca Raton gets them closer to meeting requirements of the wastewater disposal via ocean outfall legislation passed last year. The legislation prohibits the construction of new domestic wastewater ocean outfall pipes or the expansion of the six existing outfalls on the Southeast Florida coast.

“In addition, the law requires a significant decrease in nutrients discharged through the outfalls by 2018, as well as elimination of the outfalls as the primary disposal method for wastewater by 2025,” he continues. “Sixty percent of the water previously discharged out the outfalls would be required to be beneficially reused. Currently, water that is not reused in Boca is discharged to the ocean.”

Crean points out that, while nutrient-laden water may negatively impact coastal waters, that’s not the case for Broken Sound.

“The nitrogen in the reclaimed water will benefit the golf course,” he says. “We may be able to use less fertilizer.”

Working Together
Maybe it was denial, but South Florida has been hesitant to fully embrace the use of reclaimed water.

“In many areas of the state, the use of reclaimed is part of life,” says Elsner. “There are waiting lists for reclaimed water in several areas and future development depends on the use of reclaimed water. Statewide, approximately 663 mgd of reclaimed water is being reused for a beneficial purpose.”

Mathews believes that previously there may not have been enough regulatory push, and the expansion of Boca Raton’s reclamation project is due to SFWMD’s involvement.

“In the past 10 years, they didn’t really require alternative water use,” says Mathews. “They didn’t really support mandatory hookups; it was only voluntary. Then, in 2001 and 2007, we had major droughts, and there were mandatory water restrictions. People were forced to reduce their potable water usage. People love their landscape, and they began begging for reuse.”

There’s nothing like water restrictions to change someone’s behavior.

“Before, there was a yuck factor–people thought, “˜eew, wastewater,'” says Mathews. “We’ve seen that completely change with people, especially in Boca. There’s much more of a demand for reclaimed water.”

Beyond water restrictions, the water management district is playing the heavy when it comes to consumptive use permits.

“Consumptive use permits for water treatment plants will be affected,” says Mathews. “The water management district won’t increase the amount unless they’re showing alternative water sources are being implemented.”

The SFWMD didn’t just offer sticks, but carrots too. And, according to Helfrich, construction of the project couldn’t come at a better time. With fierce competition for jobs, the city will pay less than originally anticipated for the projects.

“We’ve received funding and have bid out three projects,” says Helfrich. “One was the onsite treatment system–the engineer’s estimate was $6.7 million, and the low bid was $4.3 million. There were 25 bidders. The second was a tank at a pump station. The engineer’s estimate was $5.7 million, and the cost came in at $3.7 million. The third project was a pipeline to the golf course. The engineer’s estimate was $1.5 million, and the cost came in at less than $900,000; $2.6 million of funding was provided by the SFWMD under alternative water projects.

“The city of Boca Raton is adding $8 or $9 million to the local economy,” adds Helfrich. “We’re providing jobs. It’s green and meets all the criteria for a good project.”

Working together goes beyond the field of good measure of protecting the environment and accounts for the realistic business aspects. From maintaining healthy, green golf courses and pristine, offshore reefs that lure tourists to the area, to shouldering the burden of cost to offset potable water use, a variety of entities must be involved. And with this comes a change in perspective on how water should, and will, be managed.

“All water needs to be used more than once,” says Elsner. “Using water once and disposing of it is no longer acceptable. We need to find ways to get this valuable resource back into the system. For irrigation-based reuse systems, suppliers and users need to work together, including extension of transmission mains, storage, certainty of supply, and allocation of costs.”

Even with the importance and potentially serious aspect of water supply and demand at hand, players managed to find commonalities and cooperate with each other.

“We were working with agencies, and it was actually a good partnership; I was happy and surprised,” says Crean. “We had issues and obstacles, but everybody wanted the project to be a success, and, so far, it is.” 
About the Author

Diane McDilda

Diane McDilda is an environmental writer and author living in Gainesville, FL.

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