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Reclaim, reuse, recycle: how Sarasota might tackle drinking water shortages

Written by on Sunday, July 16, 2023

By 2040, Sarasota will be facing water shortages. City Utility Chief Bill Riebe has a long-term plan on how we can conserve drinking water through reusing wastewater.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: July 14, 2023


Official Transcript

Host: By 2040, the city of Sarasota will be facing water shortages. That’s what city Utility Chief Bill Riebe told Sarasota City Commissioners during a workshop on Monday. He gave his elected bosses a longterm view on how we can secure clean drinking water for a growing population and avoid wastewater spills as storms and rainfall intensify. A big part of the solution is reuse. Our news team was there to get the details.

Here’s a sure way to annoy your Dutch friends: ask them about the water they drink and how many German bodies it has passed through. The Dutch live in the delta of the Rhine River after it crosses Germany. Much of the land they live on is technically below sea level, and that river is the by far biggest source of their drinking water. In the Netherlands, as in New Orleans and elsewhere in the world, cutting-edge treatment technology turns not only river water but even wastewater into drinking water that is no different from any treated groundwater.

So, after making sure all damaging chemicals are filtered out, and annoying jokes aside, there’s actually no issue with recycling water. Yet while we have become accustomed to using water from rivers here in the United States, only regulators in Colorado and Texas allow the reuse of water coming from treatment plants.

Here in Florida, we’re not an exception. In Plant City, a fast growing town east of Tampa that is the unofficial capital of phosphate mining and known for its Strawberry Fields, they’re trying to change that. In a pilot project, they pump all the water processed at their central Waste Water Treatment plan to further filter it at a reuse facility. After filtration, it is chlorinated for disinfection and pumped into storage tanks. That’s actual drinking water.

But because Florida regulators don’t allow it yet, that water so far only goes to select reuse customers for industrial use, for cooling towers and for irrigation of orange groves of plant nurseries and lawns. Because they cannot pump it back into the drinking water system, most of it goes unused. So in yet another step, they strip the remaining water of chlorine and dump it. In the meantime, they started the process with state regulators to allow them to use that reclaimed water as drinking water.

That pilot project is a big deal for the city of Sarasota. Bill Riebe, the Utilities Director, believes that recycling is the biggest solution to cover water scarcity in the future. Today, the city relies on pumping groundwater from the downtown and Verna well-fields. That water, when it comes back, is treated in one of the most advanced wastewater treatment plants in the region, only to be dumped into the estuary at Whitaker Bayou to the tune of five to six million gallons a day, which is half of the water the treatment plan processes.

Given estimated population growth in the city, salination of groundwater by rising sea levels, and a current $300 million capital investment program, this will be sustainable until 2040. Water use is calculated for 55,000 residents, but the city is expected to be home to 70,000 by 2040. Then we could have to begin pumping more water from the aquifer—although that’s unlikely to be allowed—buying water from other sources further inland—which is expensive—start desalinating seawater—which Florida regulators discourage—or use reclaimed water.

Riebe told WSLR News that all of these options are on the table, but reuse looks like the most feasible solution, he suggests, in part due to cost, in part due to Florida regulators discouraging desalination. Here’s how Riebe put it to city commissioners.

Bill Riebe: The longterm capacity of our drinking water system, and that’s both treatment and supplies, or well-fields and our treatment plant. So right now, we’re basically, the treatment plant and the well-field capacity will be maximized in year 2040, roughly, based upon current population demand projections and per capita daily demand. So that means additional treatment water supply capacity will be required to support growth beyond year 2040, and the planning process needs to commence within the next few years.

So we need to start identifying, you know, water supply sources, so on, so forth. So the potential additional supply water sources include additional groundwater from our existing aquifers—highly unlikely. We’re in what the Southwest Florida Water Management District calls the most impacted zone, which means they’re actually trying to remove users from that aquifer, which we’re in. Both well-fields are unfortunately in that most impacted area, so getting additional water from that aquifer is going to be—we’ve spoken with them and we think it’s, but the chances are really, really low.

The other source would be of course seawater. Getting it is very expensive, and it is discouraged by the regulators right now. They’re not, really are not kind of stiff-arming everybody when it comes to desalination. Of course, we can purchase treated water from other agencies. It’s significantly more expensive than city production, including any improvement costs, because we need to do some pretty significant improvements at our power water treatment plant. So, it’s still significantly less expensive for the city to go its own way and not buy water from another agency.

And then the last one is direct potable reuse, and that’s where we take treated wastewater, reclaimed water, which is really high quality, and treat it even more to drinking water standards. Right now, Plant City, Florida, they actually have a pilot, that they’re piloting this technology and they’re also working with the state of Florida FDEP and so on to get the regulations in place to allow for direct potable reuse. This is the future of water. Not just the unions, the state of Colorado already has implemented this. The state of Texas, you’re going to see many, many other states do the same thing. The technology is in place to do this safely, effectively, all of those things.

Host: Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch quizzed the utility director over there current practice of water dumping at Whitaker Bayou and the quality of that water.

Jen Ahearn-Koch: But this is all, all of it is reclaimed water, none of it is anything else?

BR: It’s highly treated water, yes. It basically—her and I both drank this stuff and we’re still here. Maybe a little, you know… [Laughter] But it’s very, very good water. I mean, we were going to bring some some samples. If we put our reclaimed water, and I think you were on that trip, so—if we put our reclaimed water in a jar and we put our finished water in a jar, they’re indistinguishable. You couldn’t tell the difference just from visibly looking at it You just can’t.

Host: There were no questions about how rising sea levels and more intense storms are impacting our water supply, nor were there are questions about the ability and cost of filtering pathogens from the reclaimed water. Also, the cost of all these new water treatment and other infrastructure needs will probably dwarf the $300 million investment program that’s underway right now, which in turn, will either have to be covered by charging residents higher water rates, or by raising taxes to cover additional debt service. Stay tuned.

This was Johannes Werner with WSLR News.


The Critical Times is WSLR’s effort to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm