County’s Public Utilities director affirms that county customers have ample water supply and provides update on initiatives to improve wastewater treatment

County expected to spend $500 million over next five years for water quality upgrades

These are the county’s water sources. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During a recent, 35-minute presentation for the County Commission, Mike Mylett, director of the Sarasota County Public Utilities Department, reaffirmed not only the county’s ample water supply for its more than 96,000 customers but also provided updates on the status of initiatives to improve the quality of the county’s treated wastewater.

Altogether, Mylett said, over the next five years, the county will spend approximately $500 million, with most of that — $349.63 million — going to wastewater treatment upgrades that will reduce the levels of nutrients that eventually enter Sarasota Bay.

Nitrogen is the chemical of greatest concern, as it has been identified by researchers as the main source of “food” for the red tide algae, Karenia brevis.

Additionally, over the next five years, Mylett pointed out on Nov. 18, 91% of the revenue for the planned initiatives will come from rate increases the County Commission has approved. The county has issued bonds already for some of the work, he noted, with $23.2 million in debt service paid in the 2020 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30. The county has about $230.7 million in outstanding debt, according to a slide he showed the board. (See the related article in this issue.)

“The cost of everything is going up,” Mylett noted.

The commissioners do not mind taking on that debt,” Commissioner Nancy Detert told Mylett, “because it’s so important for the consumer and the environment.”

This is a chart in the county’s 2019 drinking water quality report, showing the percentage of water from specific sources for customers that year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority provides 15.06 million gallons of water a day for the county out of the 29.91 million gallons per day available to the county, Mylett reported.

The average annual demand, he noted, is about 20 million gallons per day. “We’re really well positioned as far as our water supply sources go.”

The Peace River Authority is a consortium comprising Sarasota, Manatee, DeSoto and Charlotte counties, as its website notes. It has been providing water to the region since 1991, its website adds. The Authority draws water from the Peace River in DeSoto County, treats it and then stores it as necessary, to ensure adequate supplies during the dry seasons. The Authority’s reservoirs can hold up to 13 billion gallons, the website points out.

Sarasota County’s third largest supplier is Manatee County, which gives Sarasota County 5 million gallons per day, Mylett continued. However, staff has failed thus far to conclude negotiations with Manatee County representatives to extend that agreement beyond its termination date in 2025, he noted.

Nonetheless, Mylett explained, staff has been rehabilitating the county’s T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Water Treatment Facility (WTF) in South County, which has the capacity to produce 5.85 million gallons per day (mgd).

This graphic provides details of the rehabilitation initiatives at the Carlton Water Treatment Facility. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This graphic, included in county budget materials for the 2015 fiscal year, provides details about Phase One of the Carlton Water Treatment Facility initiatives. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Carlton plant was commissioned in the mid-1990s, he said. “All of the treatment units had reached the end of their useful life. … We’re in the process of completely rehabilitating that facility,” with the first phase expected to be finished in early 2021. Eventually, he continued, all 10 units would be back in operation, with new equipment anticipated to be much more efficient and taking up a smaller footprint. The project’s completion is expected in the 2025 fiscal year, a slide showed.

Instead of a capacity of 12 million gallons a day (mgd), he added, the facility will be able to treat 15 mg, though the county’s permit for the plant’s operation does not go beyond the 12-mgd mark.

The two other sources of county potable water are the Venice Gardens Wellfield and the University Wellfield, Mylett reminded the commissioners. The latter is near the Manatee County line.

The county’s facilities are spread out over 25 miles, Mylett noted, from University Parkway to North Port. “It is not a small, city-like system.”

Surface water comprises 58% of the county’s water supply, he added.

One issue often overlooked, Mylett continued, “is the amount of testing that’s required in our potable water system. … We don’t have any issues with water quality.”

In fact, Mylett said, “We’ve won [the award for] best-tasting water in this region four out of the last six years.” The county did not enter the competition this year, he explained, because the Carlton facility is off-line while rehabilitation work is underway.

Mylett also pointed out that the county long has encouraged water conservation through its tiered rate structure, advocacy for use of water-efficient appliances and county regulations necessitating the use of sustainable landscaping practices. He added, “On average, we [use] about 80 gallons per day, per person, which is very good in this area.”

That statistic compares to 74 gallons per day per person in Charlotte County, 76 in Manatee County and 102 in Hillsborough County.

This graphic compares water consumption in Sarasota County to the levels in other counties in the region. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Wastewater treatment initiatives

Turning to the topic of the county’s wastewater reclamation facilities, Mylett showed the board a slide with more statistics. For example, he said, the county has 723 lift stations, 18,300 manholes and 780 miles of gravity sewer main lines. The three wastewater reclamation facilities (WRFs) serve 84,000 accounts, the slide said.

In regard to the lift stations, Mylett noted, “That is a huge number.” He recently spoke with his counterpart in an Ohio city, Mylett continued, who reported that that municipality has only three lift stations.

Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out later that Sarasota County has so many lift stations because it is so flat; it needs them to push effluent along to the treatment plants. Other communities, Maio noted, have hills that assist in that process.

The three primary WRFs, Mylett said, are the Bee Ridge facility, located on Lorraine Road in the eastern portion of the county; the Venice Gardens WRF near South Venice; and the Central County WRF on Palmer Ranch.

These are details about the county’s water reclamation and wastewater treatment facilities. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Mylett did point out that he and other staff members often are asked what water reclamation means. Reclaimed water, he explained, is “wastewater that has gone through the entire water treatment process. It’s been cleaned, filtered and disinfected and meets the requirements to be used for irrigation on your lawn or the local golf course.”

Two smaller facilities that serve the county, he added, are the Lake Forest Wastewater Treatment Facility in the northern part of the county, west of Interstate 75; and the City of Venice’s Eastside Wastewater Treatment Facility. The latter treats 3 million gallons per day, as does the Venice Gardens plant.

Focus on the Bee Ridge WRF

The Bee Ridge WRF is the largest of the county’s facilities, Mylett noted. Its capacity is 12 mgd, though it is being expanded as part of its conversion to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) status. After that project has been completed, he said, the facility will be able to treat 18 mgd — a 50% increase.

This graphic provides an update on plans for the Bee Ridge WRF. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The AWT conversion is expected to be finished in mid-2025, he said. He plans to be back before them during their Dec. 8 meeting, he told the commissioners, with the contract for the design and expansion work.

Mylett reminded the board that, in late August 2019, they voted unanimously to approve a Consent Order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to undertake both short-term and long-term initiatives to improve infrastructure to prevent wastewater spills.

FDEP had documented reports of discharges of treated effluent from the Bee Ridge WRF storage pond totaling 205,197,000 gallons between Aug. 16, 2018 and Oct. 30, 2018 and then another 218,252,000 gallons between Dec. 23 2018 and March 12, 2019. Finally, from March 18, 2019 through March 26, 2019, reports showed that treated effluent discharges from the pond added up to 9,034,000.

The spills typically occurred when heavy rainfall pushed the Bee Ridge facility’s storage pond beyond its capacity.

This is a view of part of the Bee Ridge WRF, which is located at 5550 Lorraine Road. This is a still from a county Facebook Live video interview with Public Utilities Director Mike Mylett. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the passage of Tropical Storm Eta through the Gulf of Mexico in early November, Mylett told the commissioners on Nov. 18, the Bee Ridge pond was low enough that the rain did not cause any problems. “[The level] went up about 6 feet, I think … but that was still about half the capacity of the pond.”

As one means of complying with the FDEP Consent Order, the county is constructing two, 18.6-million-gallon aquifer recharge wells on the grounds of the Bee Ridge WRF. Both wells are expected to be completed in October 2021, based on a county update issued this month.

A Sept. 10 letter from a county consultant to FDEP, providing the department a progress report on the Consent Order objectives, said the first well should be finished in February 2021.

When the wells become available, excess reclaimed water can be deposited into them.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains that aquifer recharge systems “can prevent salt water intrusion into freshwater aquifers and control land subsidence.” Treated effluent is among the types of water that can be injected into such wells, the EPA adds.

The total design expense for the aquifer recharge wells was $1,895,510, paid to consultant Atkins Inc., the county update said; the construction contract calls for Florida Design Drilling Corp. to receive $8,673,756.29.

This graphic shows details about the county’s financing of projects over the next five years. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The first well has been dug, Mylett told the commissioners on Nov. 18; work is proceeding on a monitoring well that is associated with that undertaking.

Turning to the county’s — and customers’ — expenses for the water quality initiatives, Mylett reminded the commissioners that the average combined water/wastewater bill for a Sarasota County customer is $78.14 per month for 4,000 gallons. “We’re about the middle of the pack,” he added, in terms of water and wastewater rates in the region.

Looking forward over the next five years, Mylett noted that the county will have to contend with the effects of inflation, higher expenses related to new federal and state regulations, and rising costs linked to the county’s aging infrastructure.

Additionally, he said, a number of policy discussions will be necessary for the commissioners throughout this fiscal year. Among them, Mylett pointed out, will be a focus on the fact that private wastewater collection systems do not have to conform to the same regulations with which the county must comply. “We know they contribute to our challenges,” he added of such systems.