Cost could be as high as $100 million, based on early estimates, as plant also will be modified for expanded capacity
On June 19, the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously to authorize staff to proceed with planning for the conversion of the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility to an Advanced Wastewater Treatment System (AWT).
The action came as county staff continues negotiations over a Consent Order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) regarding unpermitted discharges from the Bee Ridge plant.
Additionally, the motion by Commissioner Christian Ziegler called for efforts to continue for the upgrading of the Bee Ridge facility so it can handle 18 million gallons of wastewater per day, instead of its current capacity of 12 million gallons per day.
Mike Mylett, interim director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, explained that staff’s recommendation for the increased capacity is linked to anticipated population growth in the county.
As part of the commission’s June 19 budget workshop, Mylett also pointed out that the goal is to complete the AWT conversion by 2025.
The most recent draft of the proposed Consent Order The Sarasota News Leader has received from FDEP — dated June 3 — called for the Bee Ridge facility conversion to be finished by Dec. 31, 2024.
Chair Charles Hines also asked that, when Mylett returns to the board in August with more details about the plans, Mylett be prepared to explain why the conversion will take until 2025. Members of the public are going to say, “‘Are you kidding me?’” Hines added. “You need to help lay out why that takes so long, so the public knows we’re marching forward as quickly as possible. There’s no hesitation to this.”
“The rough magnitude of cost” for the Bee Ridge project, Mylett said, is $65 million to $100 million, including the increase in capacity.
“Experts under contract [with the county] are specifically evaluating the Bee Ridge facility processes … to give us a better number,” Mylett added.
In August, he continued, after the board members return from their annual summer recess, he will be back before them with a refinement of the estimated cost.
Further, he said, “By that time, we should at least have a preliminary idea on different funding options … that may be available to us.”
Thus far, Mylett said, staff has no specific funding plan laid out.
The issues of the discharges of reclaimed water from the Bee Ridge plant became public earlier this year when three nonprofit organizations — the Suncoast Waterkeeper, Our Children’s Earth Foundation and the Ecological Rights Foundation— gave official notice to county leaders that they planned to file a lawsuit in federal court, alleging the county illegally discharged “raw sewage, partially treated sewage and/or treated reclaimed water into Phillippi Creek, Cowpen Slough, Whitaker Bayou, and streams and other waters that are tributaries to Sarasota Bay, Roberts Bay, Dona/Roberts Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in or adjoining Sarasota County.”
A revelation for administrative staff
During a June 19 interview, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the News Leader that he was unaware of the millions of gallons of discharges until he saw the formal letter of notice from the parties preparing to file the federal lawsuit. His initial reaction, he said, was “It just can’t be right.”
He believed staff “would have told us about it by now,” he added of the ongoing discharges that violated the Bee Ridge plant’s operating permit from FDEP.
Public Utilities Department employees, Lewis continued, were working on solutions. Yet, Lewis said, the details about the problems “didn’t get escalated up as far as they should have. … Information could have flowed differently.”
Lewis declined to comment on the departure earlier this year of Scott Schroyer, who served as Public Utilities director when most of the discharges were taking place, as documented by county reports to FDEP. The News Leader reported in April that Schroyer left the county after news of the lawsuit became public.
Lewis added on June 19 that he preferred to talk about current employees, not past employees. He emphasized his confidence in Mylett, saying Mylett “has done a very good job,” including providing updates to administrative staff and the commissioners whenever new information is available.
In response to News Leader questions, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester said Mylett has been with the county for 19 years. Prior to being named interim director of Public Utilities, Mylett was senior manager of the Wastewater Division in that department, Winchester added.
Further, Lewis pointed out during the interview that the Public Utilities Department operates on revenue from fees and assessments. Therefore, he indicated, staff members could have come to administrative staff to discuss a presentation to the commissioners about proposed adjustments in those revenue sources to cover the expenses of upgrades to remedy the situation at the Bee Ridge facility.
Digging into the details
During the June 19 budget workshop discussion, Commissioner Alan Maio told Mylett that, as staff members review funding options, Maio presumed they would put an emphasis on higher rates for residents with sewer service in the unincorporated areas of the county, but not for those who still are using septic systems.
“That will be a primary option, yes, sir,” Mylett responded.
“One of the biggest demands I’m getting from citizens is that they want to get [the improvements] done,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler said, referring to a communitywide focus on water quality in the wake of the devastating, months-long red tide bloom that finally ended early this year.
As he understood it, Ziegler continued, the reason the primary focus is on upgrading the Bee Ridge facility to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) status is because that will achieve the greatest reduction in the amount of nitrogen that county facilities introduce into county waterways. A May 8 presentation by staff, Ziegler pointed out, showed that the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility puts 238,000 pounds of nitrogen a year into the water. The AWT conversion would reduce that to 38,000 pounds a year, he said.
A chart Mylett and Chuck Walter, manager of the county’s Stormwater Division, showed the board members on May 8 said that the total amount of nitrogen produced annually by all the county wastewater and water reclamation plants is about 624,000 pounds. Red tide researchers have identified nitrogen as the primary source for the algae that causes the blooms.
“That’s two-thirds of the opportunity that we can knock out just by doing this [facility upgrade],” Ziegler added of the Bee Ridge proposal on June 19.
Commissioner Nancy Detert also voiced support for increasing the capacity of the Bee Ridge plant. “That’s great; we’re all for that.”
She added that she believed the consensus of the board members is that “No matter what the price tag is, we’re going to have to pay it. … It’s that important to us.”
In response to a question from Detert, Mylett pointed out, “There will be interim process improvements prior to this final AWT process.”
He also noted that staff has completed about 95% of the “short-term fixes” outlined in the proposed FDEP Consent Order. “We’ve been working with [FDEP] for several months on this.”
However, Ziegler voiced concern about fines he said he thought the county would have to pay, starting Aug. 30, based on the discussions about the Consent Order.
“We do not have a Consent Order with the state finalized at this time,” Mylett replied.
“We’re still in the middle of that process,” County Administrator Lewis added of the negotiations with the state.
As staff continues to work on measures to improve water quality, Commissioner Maio told Mylett, he also wanted staff to let the board members know, “as soon as you can,” what initiatives will be necessary at the other two primary county water reclamation facilities — the Central County and Venice Gardens plants — to accommodate additional wastewater treatment as the commission continues to eliminate septic tanks in the Phillippi Creek Basin.
“We heard that message loud and clear,” Mylett responded.
The septic-to-sewer conversions are important, too, Chair Hines noted, but they are “more of a long-term [approach].”
To be able to say to the public that the board started the process of improvements that day, with the Bee Ridge facility, Hines continued, “I’m all for that.”