Two other plants to be improved as well, at total cost of about $500 million
Sarasota County’s Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) was the first one that the Public Utilities Department constructed, and it will be the first to be converted to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) status, Public Utilities Director Mike Mylett told a gathering of local and national officials on the morning of March 22.
Standing at a podium beneath a tent on the grounds of the Bee Ridge plant, Mylett began his remarks by pointing out, “I can’t think of a better way to start the day today, on World Water Day, than to be here at this event …”
Construction is expected to be completed by the end of June 2025, he said. “[The new facility] will be operational by December of 2025.”
On Feb. 23, the County Commission voted unanimously to authorize the borrowing of $23,686,000 from the Pooled Commercial Paper Loan Program of the Florida Local Government Finance Commission to help finance the project.
Both Mylett and commission Chair Alan Maio noted that the groundbreaking this week came approximately two-and-a-half years after the board members agreed to upgrade the Bee Ridge facility; Mylett characterized that as “a record-setting pace.”
Along with the improvements necessary for the plant to achieve AWT status, Mylett added, the Bee Ridge facility’s capacity will increase from 12 million gallons a day to 18 million gallons a day.
When the plant opened at 5550 Lorraine Road in Sarasota, Mylett pointed out, its capacity was 1.5 million gallons a day.
“This is the biggest project we’ve ever done,” Maio told the audience.
A county news release put it this way: “At $210 million, it’s … the highest valued capital improvement project in Sarasota County’s history.”
Altogether, the county will pay about $500 million for all three upgrades.
Further, both Maio and Mylett took the opportunity to point to the fact that this is the first of three such undertakings that the commission has authorized. The two other county sewage treatment plants — one is located near Venice; the other, on Palmer Ranch — will be improved to AWT status, with increased capacity, as well.
“That’s a huge step forward to protect the water quality in our area,” Mylett said.
That is one of the commission’s highest priorities, Maio added.
Maio also noted that “absolutely no arm twisting” was involved in the board members’ decision to pursue the three water reclamation facility upgrades.
Yet, that decision came after former Public Utilities Director Scott Schroyer departed Sarasota County Government employment in early 2019, and County Administrator Jonathan Lewis elevated Mylett to interim department director.
Those actions followed the decision of several environmental nonprofit organizations — including the Suncoast Waterkeeper in Sarasota — to file a federal lawsuit against the county, alleging that close to 1 billion gallons of sewage had spilled illegally, over a period of years, from a storage pond on the site of the Bee Ridge plant.
Lewis told The Sarasota News Leader in June 2019 that he was unaware of that history when representatives of those organizations informed county staff — as required by law — that they planned to file the complaint over violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act.
Subsequently, commissioners made public statements indicating their ire that staff had not made them aware of the sewage spills.
In September 2019, the county commissioners agreed to a settlement of the environmental groups’ complaint.
The EPA assistance
During his remarks, Chair Maio also expressed the board’s appreciation to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had provided the county a low-interest, $105-million loan for the Bee Ridge project.
“I had the pleasure of signing all those documents,” he added, which will save the taxpayers millions of dollars.
The county news release noted that, because of the county’s financial stability, “[T]he interest rate on the loan is a low 1.84 percent and will save nearly $10 million from the original projection. In addition, Sarasota County was one of only 55 communities nationwide selected to receive these funds.”
In May 2021, the EPA sent county staff members a letter, notifying them that the county would be eligible for the loan through the EPA’s Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA). A county staff memo prepared for the commissioners explained, “The WIFIA loan program offers a low interest rate funding source with flexible financing terms and a longer repayment period than typical for projects [that will cost more than] $20 million, for a community of our size …”
One of the speakers during the March 22 event was the administrator of EPA’s Southeastern Region, which is based in Atlanta.
Daniel Blackman opened his remarks by offering his congratulations to county leaders. He pointed out that the investment in the improvements at the Bee Ridge facility was not just important to the county but also to the state.
He further noted how much the EPA values partnerships that lead to better infrastructure and a higher level of water quality. “What I see today is what truly happens when EPA supports the right projects,” Blackman added.
The agency does not enjoy such collaboration with other communities, he indicated.
Blackman also told the audience that the U.S. Clean Water Act will mark its 50thanniversary in October.
“Clean and safe water is our nation’s most precious resource,” he said. The EPA’s mission, Blackman pointed out, “is to protect human health and the environment, [and] affordability is one of the biggest challenges facing the water utility sector.”
He looked forward, he said, to being able to tout the Sarasota project as he addresses other communities in the EPA’s Southeast Region.
On two other notes of import, Mylett told the audience that one big advantage with the work at the Bee Ridge WRF site is the fact that the property encompasses 143 acres. Therefore, the existing facility can continue to operate while the new one is underway.
In fact, he told the audience, “The entire 18-million-gallon facility [will be built] right where you’re sitting.”
Additionally, Maio mentioned what he described as “a well-kept secret”: All three of the wastewater treatment facilities will be upgraded to hurricane-resistant status.