Commissioners discuss potential of another water quality summit
The process of converting the Sarasota County Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) status is on schedule “and on budget,” Mike Mylett, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, told the county commissioners on May 21.
Addressing the board members during their budget workshop that day, Mylett explained that the plant is treating about 6.6 million gallons of wastewater per day, during which 1,900 pounds of nitrogen is removed from the effluent.
After the AWT conversion has been completed, Mylett continued, 3,100 pounds of nitrogen will be removed from the wastewater each day, adding up to approximately 566 tons a year.
Moreover, Mylett noted, after the capacity of the plant has been increased by 50% — from 12 million gallons per day to 18 million gallons per day — the Bee Ridge WRF will remove about 8,600 pounds of nitrogen on a daily basis, or approximately 1,570 tons per year.
(Commissioner Christian Ziegler had asked Mylett about the amount of nitrogen going into county waterways — and ultimately into Sarasota Bay — as a result of the current process.)
Ziegler noted that red tide alerts were going out that day in Manatee County. While red tide is a naturally occurring phenomenon, he added, scientists have shown that nutrients — especially nitrogen — provide fuel to the algae that produces red tide, Karenia brevis.
Referring to the impact of the AWT conversion, Ziegler emphasized, “That’s real results for our waterways and our environment.” He suggested that staff share the figures with the public. “That’s a very, very big deal.”
During his presentation, Mylett reminded the commissioners that in December 2020, work commenced on the design of the project to convert the Bee Ridge WRF to AWT status and to expand it. Then, in February, the commissioners approved the hiring of what is called a “construction manager at risk” — a firm that will oversee all facets of the construction and ensure that work proceeds within the budget.
“What’s nice about what we’re doing,” Mylett continued, is that the Bee Ridge WRF is large enough that the project can get underway on the north side of the site “while we keep the plant in operation.” Making certain that the processing of wastewater can continue is “a challenge when you’re dealing with plants like this,” Mylett added.
Thus far, he said, staff anticipates the total project will cost “right around the $170-million range.”
In October, he added, he plans to be back before the board as the design work reaches the 50% stage. At that time, Mylett said, he would discuss the necessary prep work at the site. Then, in March 2022, he noted, he expects to see the project at the 70% design mark, with the guaranteed maximum price (GMP) ready for board approval.
(A construction manager at risk also is responsible for providing the GMP.)
“This commission should be very, very proud of what’s happening here,” Chair Alan Maio said.
“These numbers, as significant as they are,” Maio pointed out of the expense, are a reflection of plans for the expansion, the AWT conversion and ensuring the facility will be hurricane-resistant.
Then Maio talked about the Water Quality Summit the county hosted in June 2019, at Commissioner Ziegler’s suggestion. The decision to pursue the AWT conversion “came out of that,” Maio said.
However, in early 2019, several environmental nonprofits — including Suncoast Waterkeeper of Sarasota — filed a federal lawsuit against the county over the hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater that had been spilled — both treated and untreated effluent — over a period of years. The majority of the incidents were related to a storage pond on the Bee Ridge WRF site.
Additionally, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) alerted county staff about its investigation into those spills.
The commissioners agreed to an FDEP Consent Order and a settlement of the lawsuit in a space of about three weeks in the late summer of 2019. The AWT conversion was part of the Consent Order; FDEP gave the county until the end of 2025 to complete that work.
When Maio asked Mylett on May 21 about the plans for converting the county’s other two main water reclamation facilities — the Central County plant on Palmer Ranch and the Venice Gardens facility in Venice — to AWT, Mylett replied that he is planning to discuss those initiatives with the commissioners this summer. At that time, he would seek their direction on the next steps, Mylett said.
Then Commissioner Ron Cutsinger asked Mylett for clarification that the county would be able sell the reclaimed water produced by the Bee Ridge WRF after the AWT conversion.
Because the resulting water will be so low in nutrients, Mylett responded, the county will be able to “open up a new customer base” for it. “Basically, the whole [Schroeder-Manatee Ranch] group in Lakewood Ranch, on the northern end of the county, would be able to purchase the water, Mylett added. “They can only accept AWT water,” he pointed out.
In the past, Mylett has explained that the highly treated, reclaimed water can be used for irrigation purposes.
Public outreach regarding water quality efforts
During the discussion Ziegler also said he would like to see the county provide an update to the public regarding the water-quality initiatives. Staff still should have all the registration information from people who attended the 2019 Water Quality Summit, Ziegler said, which likely would include email addresses. Perhaps staff could schedule a Zoom update and an email blast, as residents are so concerned about water quality, Ziegler added.
“We’ll be communicating,” County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told Ziegler.
Additionally, Lewis noted, Lee Hayes Byron, director of the county’s University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension program, and her staff have been “the tip of the spear” in working on water quality strategies in conjunction with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s Community Playbook for Healthy Waterways. (The commissioners saw a presentation about that program last year, as representatives of the Playbook team unveiled what they had been working on before the formal launch of the initiative. Jon Thaxton, senior vice president of the Foundation, was one of the members of the group that created the Playbook. To see a video produced about the Playbook, go to this link.)
On its website, the Foundation explains that the Playbook “is a comprehensive online manual of recommended activities to reduce and remove manmade nutrient pollution in the region’s waterways and sustain those improvements in the future. While the Playbook focuses on Sarasota County, the proposed activities can be adapted, transferred, and customized to other coastal Florida communities.”
The UF/IFAS Extension team already has been discussing the potential of another water quality summit, Lewis added. “I think in the coming months, you’ll hear from Lee Hayes with that idea,” he told the commissioners.