County commissioners offer full support for proposal to improve water quality
No formal vote was taken on Aug. 21, but all five Sarasota County commissioners asserted their support for a potentially $158-million project to transform the county’s Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility to an advanced wastewater treatment (AWT) complex.
As Commissioner Christian Ziegler characterized it, “This is the biggest step that we probably can take as a county to restrict nutrients going into our waterways.”
By making the investment, he pointed out, the county would be able to reduce the nitrogen load from its wastewater treatment facilities by close to one-third, based on a report county Public Utilities Department and Stormwater Division staff members made to the commission in early May.
Nitrogen has been found to be a key source of food for the red tide algae, Karenia brevis.
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis pointed out on Aug. 21 that the transition to AWT status would reduce the amount of nitrogen in the treated wastewater from 10 to 15 milligrams per liter to “3 or less,” which is the standard for drinking water.
The conversion of the Bee Ridge complex is expected to be completed in 2025, Mike Mylett, interim director of the Public Utilities Department, told the commission. However, Lewis said he would like to see the project finished in 2024.
“The county is acting extremely quickly right now,” Commissioner Alan Maio said. “That’s a very big deal.”
“[I] fully support this,” Chair Charles Hines told staff. “This is the right thing to do.”
During public comments, former Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who was representing the Gulf Coast Community Foundation as its senior vice president for community investment, applauded the commissioners for proceeding with the Bee Ridge upgrade. “[That] is by far, by far, the most cost-effective way to get these nutrient pollutants out of our waterways.”
Paying for the project
To cover the cost of the AWT conversion, staff also is proposing a 5% increase in the annual wastewater fee that county customers will pay each year from 2020 through 2024. Additionally, staff will seek formal board approval to impose a water quality fee of $1 per EDU (equivalent dwelling unit) for every year in the same period.
For the typical county Public Utilities customer, who is billed for 4,000 gallons of wastewater per month, the fee would rise from $45.05 this year to $48.30 next year and to $58.50 by 2024, according to a staff slide prepared for the Aug. 21 discussion.
Mylett, the interim Utilities director, told the commissioners that he would be back before them in October with a resolution for the fee changes.
The new rates, he explained, “will provide the funding necessary to move forward with the Bee Ridge upgrade project and provide the financing mechanism to secure the bonds necessary to make the project happen.”
Moreover, he noted, the Public Utilities Department “is undertaking a full rate study.” Staff will be back with the results of that in June 2020, he said.
Additionally, Mylett reminded the board members that they asked last fall about whether wastewater and water capacity fees should be increased for new residential development. A consultant has recommended an increase, he added, so staff is preparing a presentation on that for the board in November.
Delving into the project facets and finances
In response to questions posed by Commissioner Nancy Detert, Mylett explained that, instead of upgrading the Bee Ridge facility to what he called “basically the conventional AWT” design, staff has proposed a conversion to what a chart referred to as a “membrane bioreactor” process. The latter, Mylett said, “provides us a lot of additional benefits.”
The membrane bioreactor process still will allow for an increase in the plant’s capacity from 12 million gallons per day to 18 million, he added. However, it will result in a smaller footprint and less sludge production, according to a slide Mylett showed the commission.
The conversion to the conventional process would not afford the county flexibility for more expansion in the future, that slide also said.
Additionally, Mylett pointed out, “The cost differential between the two processes is minimal … when you consider the size of this project.”
For the conventional treatment process, the upgrade was estimated at $145,967,000. For the membrane bioreactor, the approximate expense was put at $157,644,000.
During the board’s June 19 budget workshop, Mylett noted, he had offered an estimate between $65 million and $100 million. The figure for the membrane bioreactor process is not that far off the mark, he pointed out, given the fact that the $158-million estimate incorporates “lots of contingencies that you would anticipate as part of any construction project.”
Moreover, Mylett explained of the expense, “You’re building a whole new treatment unit on that site. … You’re touching every process in the facility [while it is operating]. … That’s a logistical nightmare, trying to keep the processes functioning …”
He also emphasized that staff had come up with the earlier cost range by researching similar wastewater plant upgrades in the state. Subsequently, Mylett said, staff hired a consultant to go out to the Bee Ridge facility and work up estimates based on its actual operations.
Staff already has begun advertising a solicitation for a firm to handle the design of the AWT conversion, Mylett added. After a firm has been hired, he continued, staff will be able to provide the board members a refined estimate of the total expense.
Commissioner Ziegler asked what assurances the commission would have that, after completion of the Bee Ridge facility improvements, the county would not have to contend with a regulatory demand for even higher standards in the future.
“That’s always a concern,” Mylett responded. “We continuously work with the state Legislature [and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection] on what’s coming down the road.”
Nonetheless, Mylett continued, “We may be leading this [AWT conversion] effort right now [in the state]. It’s a push that’s coming from the regulators,” he said, so staff expects more utility departments will have to pursue similar upgrades.
Further, Ziegler asked about the potential of closing the Venice Gardens Water Reclamation Facility or the Central County Water Reclamation Facility, after the Bee Ridge plant’s conversion.
“Consolidation is always a consideration,” Mylett said. “We’re always looking for cost-cutting opportunities.”
Staff is researching the potential for shifting some of the wastewater flow from the Central County facility to the Bee Ridge facility, he added. If that appears to be a viable option, he told Ziegler, staff would discuss it with the commissioners.
More potential county income
Mylett also pointed out that, with the Bee Ridge facility being able to produce treated wastewater that meets the state standard for drinking water, the county will be able to seek new customers for that treated water.
The biggest potential new customer is the developer of Lakewood Ranch, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Mylett said.
Lakewood Ranch has a restriction on the quality of the reclaimed water that can be used for irrigation, Mylett explained. “I can’t sell to them now.”
However, the completion of the ATW conversion, he continued, “opens up [the opportunity for] that customer, who will take millions of gallons a day of reclaimed water. … That’s the beneficial use that we’re looking for.”
Other potential new customers are homeowner associations, Mylett continued. When the commission approves new residential communities, he said, the agreements with the developers call for the neighborhoods to take as much reclaimed water as they produce in the form of wastewater for the county system. That reclaimed water is used for irrigation, he added.
Further, county staff works with the staff of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) on projects entailing the extension of county lines to provide reclaimed water to new customers, Mylett noted.
At one time in years past, Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out, “the county could notguarantee, year in, year out, the availability of reuse water. Now we have overwhelming amounts of it. … I would just reiterate there’s hugeopportunities out there for people to hook up.”