Aquifer recharge wells and installation of interim advanced wastewater treatment system among conditions in county’s 2019 Consent Order with FDEP over illegal discharges
As items on the Sarasota County Commission’s April 20 Consent Agenda, which comprised routine business matters, the latest steps to improve operations at the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) won unanimous support.
However, because the board members typically do not address Consent Agenda issues, the initiatives would have gone unremarked if Commissioner Christian Ziegler had not made a point of commenting on them.
Referencing the recent discharge of hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay from Piney Point, the former phosphate mining facility in Manatee County, Ziegler stressed the Sarasota County Commission’s commitment to water quality.
The pond where treated water is stored on the site of the Bee Ridge WRF “has been an issue,” Ziegler added. “We’re addressing it [and want to] get [solutions] done as quick as we can.”
That pond was a primary focus of a federal lawsuit that three nonprofit organizations — including the Suncoast Waterkeeper, which is based in Sarasota — filed against the county in early 2019. Ziegler was the only board member who opposed the settlement in that case, when the commissioners took their vote on Sept. 10, 2019.
That lawsuit included exhibits showing that the total illegal discharges from the Bee Ridge facility’s 142.5-million-gallon storage pond added up to just under 1 billion gallons between September 2015 and March 26 of 2019.
The complaint also documented spills from the Central County WRF and the Venice Gardens WRF.
A memo that the Office of the County Attorney provided the commissioners about the proposed settlement explained, “The reclaimed water discharged from [the storage pond] does not pose a human health risk, but rather has elevated levels of nutrients, particularly nitrogen. This reclaimed water overflowed the pond into a wetland in the Phillippi Creek watershed.”
A couple of weeks before the commissioners approved the lawsuit settlement, they voted unanimously to approve a Consent Order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) over illegal wastewater discharges and sewage spills. Part of that agreement calls for the conversion of the Bee Ridge WRF to advanced wastewater status by the end of 2025.
Another project FDEP required was the completion of aquifer recharge wells at the Bee Ridge facility on Lorraine Road in Sarasota. That initiative was the focus of one of the items on the April 20 Consent Agenda. The board approved a $915,511 cooperative funding agreement with the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) for that work.
Matching funds will be paid out of utility system rate revenue, a staff memo explained.
Altogether, that project entails construction of two aquifer recharge wells, three monitoring wells, a pumping station, piping and other equipment, the memo added. The total cost is $8,637,456.20.
In that memo, which was provided to the commissioners in advance of their April 20 meeting, Public Utilities Department Director Mike Mylett pointed out that the county paid the full cost of the design and permitting of the Bee Ridge WRF Recharge Wells Project during the 2020 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2020. The county also subsequently put the project out for bid in the 2020 fiscal year; the initiative is underway.
The Scope of Work for the SWFWMD funding covers “the construction and testing of one non-hazardous Class V Aquifer Recharge Injection Well,” Mylett added in the memo. County staff will be able to discharge reclaimed water “meeting high-level disinfection standards into non-potable water portions of the Upper Floridan Aquifer” at a minimum rate of 5 million gallons per day.
The two-well project has been permitted to handle a maximum rate of 18 million gallons per day, Mylett noted.
“The project is located just outside of the Eastern Tampa Bay Most Impacted Area (ETB MIA) and will aid in the ETB MIA recovery efforts by providing a source of water to recharge the Upper Floridan Aquifer and potentially reverse the current trends of landward and upward migration of mineralized water into aquifer zones which are used for production of potable [drinking] water,” Mylett wrote in the April 20 memo.
The Scope of Work says the aquifer recharge well built with the SWFWMD funding is to be “operated and maintained in such a manner that it shall continue to be utilized to its proposed capacity … for a minimum of  years.”
On Sept. 25, 2019, Mylett sent a letter to SWFWMD, explaining that the County Commission “ranked and approved” the submittal of five project applications for the District’s Fiscal Year 2021 Cooperative Funding Initiative. No 1 on the list, Mylett noted in a chart, was a $3-million request for the aquifer recharge wells initiative at the Bee Ridge facility. The county would be required to match the $3 million, if the SWFWMD board approved the funds, the chart said.
A related water quality project
The second Bee Ridge WRF item on the April 20 County Commission Consent Agenda involved a $4,615,925 agreement with Wharton-Smith Inc. of Fort Myers for the design and construction of an interim advanced wastewater treatment (AWT) process.
Wharton-Smith was one of three companies that submitted proposals for the project, a county Procurement Department document said.
The staff memo provided to the commissioners about that Consent Agenda item said that in 2020, a pilot study was undertaken at the Bee Ridge WRF site “to discern if the existing, internal treatment process could be modified to reduce the nitrogen levels in the effluent, until such time [as] the facility is expanded and converted to an Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) process.”
The study results showed those levels could be lowered to less than 10 milligrams per liter, the memo pointed out.
Further, Mylett noted that the interim AWT process is among the stipulations in the FDEP Consent Order; it must be completed by June 2023.
“The Wharton-Smith team, along with [its] subconsultant, Kimley-Horn and Associates, Inc., will work collaboratively” on the Bee Ridge WRF project, Mylett added, with county expectation that the initiative will be completed on schedule.
The memo says work will begin in May, and it will be finished within 300 days, “or March 2022.”
Funding for this project will be covered through utility bond proceeds, he noted, which will be repaid by utility rate revenue.
In May 2019, Mylett told the commissioners that the total nitrogen load produced by the Bee Ridge facility is 14 milligrams per liter.
Nitrogen has been identified as the primary feeder of the red tide algae, Karenia brevis, Mote Marine Laboratory researchers and other scientists have reported.
During the April 20 County Commission meeting, Commissioner Ziegler also noted that red tide had been reported off the county coast — “just low levels out in the Gulf,” as he put it.
Last week, the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) issued an advisory about the elevated level of the algae found in water samples taken on April 12. DOH-Sarasota cautioned individuals to be careful of potential respiratory problems at affected beaches.