Utilities director reports on progress regarding various aspects of initiative authorized a year ago
In June 2019, during their discussions about the budget for the current fiscal year, the Sarasota County commissioners committed themselves fully to the conversion of the county’s Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility to Advanced Wastewater Treatment status.
They agreed, as well, to expand the capacity of the plant from 12 million gallons a day to 18 million gallons a day.
At the time, they were faced with a federal lawsuit over illegal discharges from the retention pond at the Bee Ridge facility’s site on Lorraine Road, along with a proposed Consent Order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). The latter also was focused on upgrades to the Bee Ridge plant because of its history of problems.
This year, as the commissioners worked on their proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year, two of them stressed to Mike Mylett, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, that he should alert them to any steps they can approve to speed up the timeline for the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) initiatives.
The ultimate goal is to significantly reduce the amount of nitrogen that ends up in the county’s waterways and Sarasota Bay. Nitrogen is one of the primary foods for the red tide algae, Karenia brevis.
On July 8, Commissioner Christian Ziegler told Mylett that the conversion of the Bee Ridge WRF is among the top issues the board members hear about from the public. “I think that’s kind of the urgency here.”
Mylett pointed out that the plans call for completion of the improvements by the end of 2025.
“Let’s shoot for early 2025 or late 2024, or whatever we can do,” Ziegler told him.
Ziegler compared the commissioners’ view of the Bee Ridge WRF initiatives to the efforts underway to construct the North Extension of The Legacy Trail to downtown Sarasota and the connection from Venice to North Port. “It’s ingrained in the culture to get that done ASAP,” Ziegler added, referring to board members’ direction to the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources staff. “Know this board wants to see this come online,” he told Mylett, referring to the improved Bee Ridge WRF. “Just set that tone with your staff.”
In his July 2 update to the commissioners, Mylett reported that the latest cost estimate for the construction that will create the Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) process and expand the Bee Ridge WRF capacity is $159 million — which is what he projected last year, he added.
All told, Mylett noted, the undertaking — including design work — has been put at about $182 million.
The engineering firm staff hired is “probably [at] about the 65% mark,” he added, in regard to completing the design.
With the decision having been made about the type of AWT process that will be used, Mylett explained, “The engineer [can] move forward with a specific planning effort.”
Later this summer, he told the commissioners, they would see a solicitation go out from the county Procurement Department for a firm that can serve as Construction Manager at Risk, to oversee all facets of the Bee Ridge project. The goal is to bring a contract to the board for approval early in 2021, he continued. Then, Mylett said, staff anticipates coming to the commission in the spring of 2022 with a Guaranteed Maximum Price for the Bee Ridge initiative.
In the meantime, Mylett noted, staff has completed the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility Pilot Testing Project. A county webpage explains that that entailed modifications of one of the tanks at the Bee Ridge plant to determine whether the resulting treated water would meet the necessary standards for discharge into aquifer recharge wells being constructed on the site. The expense of the test was $892,179, the webpage said.
“We are continuing to look at other … funding sources,” Mylett told the board members on July 2, referring to the overall expense of the Bee Ridge WRF work. Among those efforts, he continued, staff will be submitting a letter through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) process and looking into the potential of issuing bonds.
The need for speed
Commissioner Alan Maio was the first to point out that he had been getting lots of questions about the cost of the project, especially from people he worked with as a principal at the Sarasota office of the Kimley-Horn design and engineering consulting firm. When he explains to them that the Bee Ridge WRF will be able to handle 50% more wastewater, Maio added, they understand about the high expense.
“We authorized this,” Maio said of himself and his colleagues. “That’s our problem to find the money, and Jonathan’s problem.” (Maio was referring to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis.)
Given the expected three-year timeline between when the board authorized the project and when the construction contract will be approved, Maio asked Mylett, “Is there anything you need from this board to speed up that timeline … without trading speed for accuracy?”
“We are on an expedited timeline,” Mylett responded. The engineering firm working on the design, he added, has brought in experts from around the United States to assist it. Further, he said, his staff has “devoted considerable time” to completing the necessary technical memos to facilitate the design work, including making the decision about the type of treatment process.
“We are working as quickly as we can to get those things done,” Mylett reiterated his earlier point. The conversion of the Bee Ridge WRF will be finished in 2025, he added, as required by the FDEP Consent Order and the settlement with the nonprofit environmental organizations.
Mylett also discussed the status of the installation of the aquifer recharge system at the Bee Ridge site. That should be finished in late 2021 or early 2022, he added. As soon as those wells are ready, Mylett said, staff can use them for reclaimed water if the retention pond at the Bee Ridge WRF is at risk of spilling treated water.
“There’s not a lot more we can do at this point in time,” Mylett said.
Commissioner Ziegler asked when in 2025 the improvements would be completed.
“Midsummer. June. June-ish,” Mylett replied.
In response to a question from Commissioner Charles Hines, Mylett explained that after the Construction Manager at Risk firm has been hired, that company’s staff can work with the design engineers on facets of the undertaking. “There may be projects that get done ahead of time. … We may come back to you with smaller projects.”
That Construction Manager at Risk will help sequence the construction plans, Mylett noted.
“This seems like we’re building something that has never ever been built before,” Hines said, since it will take six years from the time the board authorized the initiative until the work has been completed. “I’m struggling with that [timeline].”
Hines then suggested perhaps it would have saved time if the board had agreed to construct an entirely new facility.
“The goal,” Hines stressed, “is to get this going to improve water quality as soon as possible.”
Building a brand new facility on open ground “is a lot simpler,” Mylett told the commissioners. The necessity for the Bee Ridge WRF to continue to function while the upgrades are underway “requires a lot more coordination and sequencing of construction.”
The Bee Ridge WRF processes 7 million to 8 million gallons of wastewater a day, he noted. During rain events, that amount grows to 14 million to 15 million a day. All the water will have to be treated, Mylett emphasized, “while we’re building a facility basically next to the existing treatment facility.”
Looking ahead to upgrades for other county facilities
Maio also pointed out that the county’s other two water reclamation facilities — Venice Gardens in Venice and the Central County WRF on Palmer Ranch — will have to be improved, too, in the future. “Do we have teams already analyzing those?” he asked Mylett. “I see nine-figure [expense] requests for each one of those,” Maio added. “That’s where the heartburn comes.”
In late summer or early fall of 2021, Mylett said, staff expects to come back to the board with an update on the initiatives for those plants.
“We just need to get this stuff done,” Maio told Mylett. “We are the gatekeepers right up here … on the money. We need an unvarnished, unblemished, fully open [report saying,] ‘Here’s how much it’s going to cost.’ We know it’s coming.”