$7.6 million sought in water management district grants for Sarasota County projects

County Commission approves ranked list of five proposals and emphasizes need to make constituents aware of continued focus on water quality initiatives

This is a banner on the Southwest Florida Water Management District website. Image from the district

In approving staff’s proposals for five grant requests to the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), Sarasota County commissioners this week stressed that the public needs to know they are keeping an emphasis on water quality issues.

With a unanimous vote on Sept. 25, the board members authorized staff to submit applications to SWFWMD for grants totaling $7,650,000 for the 2021 fiscal year.

At every community meeting he attends, Commissioner Alan Maio said, constituents ask him about board plans to improve water quality. “The word has to go out … that we are doing these things. We are moving forward … and we are exploring every avenue, including grants.”

“I don’t think we can emphasize this enough,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler added. “This is the one issue I keep getting hit up on. For many people, this is their only [focus for] interaction with Sarasota County Government. …We can’t over-communicate on what we’re doing.”

The following projects are those for which the county will seek SWFWMD grants in the next funding cycle:

  • $3 million for the construction of up to two aquifer recharge wells that could handle 18 million gallons of “highly treated and disinfected” reclaimed water per day at the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility, located at 5550 Lorraine Road in Sarasota.
This graphic provides details about the Bee Ridge WRF aquifer recharge wells grant application. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Not only would this assist the county in eliminating overflows of a 145.2-million-gallon storage pond on the site, but Mike Mylett, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, explained on Sept. 24 that the project also would be aid the recovery of groundwater levels in the Floridan Aquifer. SWFWMD considers that aquifer a Most Impacted Area (MIA), Mylett noted. The Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility, he added, is less than a mile from that MIA.

The total cost of that project is $10 million, according to a slide Mylett showed the board.

  • $1.5 million for construction of approximately 20,000 feet of pipeline along Lorraine Road that would enable the county to supply 2.8 million gallons a day of reclaimed water for irrigation in Lakewood Ranch. “We are in active negotiations,” Mylett said, with Braden River Utilities, to make those sales of reclaimed water possible.

The total cost of that project is estimated at $3 million.

Braden River Utilities is a subsidiary of Shroeder-Manatee Ranch, which is the developer of Lakewood Ranch.

This graphic provides details about the proposed Lorraine Road project. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During an Aug. 21 presentation to the commission, Mylett noted the potential of increased county revenue from such sales after the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) has been converted to an Advanced Wastewater Treatment process. That conversion will reduce the level of nitrogen in the reclaimed water, he said, to a level that Lakewood Ranch would accept.

  • $500,000 for a mid-county project in the area of State Road 681, which would enable the county to supply 2 million gallons a day of reclaimed water to the Palmer Ranch, Calusa Lakes and Mission Valley communities. That would reduce their need for water from other sources for irrigation.
These are details about the South County reclaimed water project. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The total cost of that project also is expected to be $3 million.

  • $2.5 million for a study involving the construction of central sewer systems to replace aging septic tanks within the Sarasota and Lemon Bay watersheds. That type of project typically has not won SWFWMD funding, Mylett pointed out. “However,” he said, the [SWFWMD] governing board is exploring expanding” into other initiatives related to water quality.

“We’re putting in the request to raise the discussion,” Mylett added.

Each septic tank replaced by a central sewer system reduces by 25 pounds a year the amount of nitrogen flowing into the watershed, noted a slide shown to the board. Nitrogen has been identified as the principal source of food for the red tide algae, researchers say.

This graphic provides information about the proposed study of new septic-to-sewer projects. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The total cost of the study has been estimated at $5 million.

  • $150,000 for a study that would compare the efficiencies of various methods that used to remove nitrogen from groundwater, a process called denitrification. (During the county’s June 5 Water Quality Summit, Steve Suau of Progressive Water Resources talked about the use of wood chips and biochar to reduce the amount of nitrogen that enters waterways.)

The total cost of that project has been put at $3 million.

The proposed study would examine four different types of methods, Mylett explained on Sept. 25.

This slide provides details about the groundwater denitrification study that has been proposed. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The county would be responsible for a match of the same amount for each of those grants, if the county is successful in winning funding, a slide showed.

According to another slide, staff will submit the applications — ranked in the above order — to SWFWMD before Oct. 5. Then, in February 2020, district staff will evaluate all applications, rank them and present them to the SWFWMD governing board, Mylett said. The governing board will approve projects in August 2020, he added.

The need for speed

During Mylett’s presentation, Commissioner Nancy Detert asked how long the study would take for the proposed new septic-to-sewer project in South County.

“It’s probably a two-year study,” he replied.

Yet, the commissioners already know the outcome, she indicated, referring to research that has shown central sewer systems generally provide far more intensive treatment of wastewater than septic tanks.

“Yes, we know the end of that story,” Mylett acknowledged, “but we have to have the path to get there.”

Detert told him she believed the commissioners had expressed their intent to pursue more elimination of septic systems “as quickly as possible.”

The two-year timeline, she added, was too long.

Mike Mylett responds to a staff member’s questions on the site of the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility storage pond. Image from Aug. 20 Sarasota County video

“We will do everything in our power to [expedite] that,” Mylett replied.

“Mr. Lewis, do you see any speedier path for this?” Detert asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis.

“I always see a speedy path,” Lewis told her, often to the chagrin of staff members, he added with a chuckle. However, he continued, “The reality is this [entails] a lot of engineering studies and a lot of environmental studies … It will be done with all due haste,” given the complexity of the work.

Additionally, Lewis reminded Detert that Mylett was asking for the board’s support for applying to SWFWMD for a grant to help pay for the study.

Commissioner Maio also emphasized a desire to see the study completed as soon as possible. The commission already has made it clear to staff, he added, that septic-to-sewer projects should be scheduled on a priority basis, so they get underway first in neighborhoods with greater residential density and closer proximity to water bodies.

Commissioner Michael Moran — a former member of the SWFWMD governing board — pointed out that, from the governing board’s perspective, a study is “an investment.” He contrasted such an initiative, undertaken by third-party subject matter experts on behalf of a local government body, with “rogue requests,” which get far less attention.

Chair Charles Hines emphasized the need for staff to continue work on all the proposed water quality projects proposed for grant funding, instead of just waiting on the SWFWMD board’s decision.

Hines added that he hoped the results of the sewer-to-septic study would convince “a very, very large part of our community that this [conversion to central sewer service] is what’s needed.”

A graph showed to attendees of the June 5 Sarasota County Water Quality Summit shows details about the county’s investment in septic-to sewer conversions. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioners in the past have bemoaned pushback from residents in areas where septic-to-sewer projects have been proposed. The board members have talked of property owners’ complaints about the expense, even though the result will be far better water quality.

After the discussion, Moran made the motion to approve the grant applications. He pointed out that he had talked at length with Mylett about the water management district’s grant process.

“These are human beings. They’re super smart business folks,” he said of the SWFWMD board members. Even if a grant application focuses on a project that has not typically won approval, Moran said, it is possible to convince the board members of its merit. “You ask. You might get a ‘No,’ but you still ask.”

In response to a remark from Commissioner Detert, Rob Lewis, the county’s governmental relations director, affirmed that he and the board’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and in Tallahassee “are aggressively working” to win federal and state grant funds for county water quality initiatives, as well.