By Jane Smith
The Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County was still waiting last month for Delray Beach to finish inspecting its reclaimed water locations.
Then, the DOH will determine whether the information provided is enough to close out its investigation of the city’s reclaimed water program, according to December emails.
“The investigation is ongoing,” DOH spokesman Alexander Shaw wrote Dec. 18.
Delray Beach is trying to avoid civil fines from the DOH, which sent a warning letter on July 1. That letter listed 13 possible violations in the reclaimed water program.
City leaders met virtually on July 22 with the DOH staff to review the possible violations and Delray Beach’s response.
Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez told the Beach Properties Owners’ Association members at their Dec. 16 annual meeting that the city was more than 90% finished with its fixes. “We are very close to being done,” she said.
The DOH became involved in inspecting the city’s reclaimed water system on Jan. 2, 2020, when a resident who lives at 801 S. Ocean Blvd. called to complain about a December 2018 cross connection that occurred at her house. The caller did not explain why she waited more than a year to make a complaint.
Cross connections happen when the drinking water pipes are mistakenly connected to the reclaimed water lines. Reclaimed water is highly treated wastewater that is suitable only for lawn irrigation.
In February, Delray Beach shut down its reclaimed water system to avoid a citywide boil water order demanded by DOH. The DOH demand was triggered by the 801 S. Ocean resident’s complaint.
After shutting down the reclaimed water system, the city hired consultants and contractors to inspect each reclaimed water installation to make sure it was done properly and included the necessary backflow preventers. Backflow devices are used to prevent the reclaimed water from mixing with the drinking water.
The city spent $1.08 million as of mid-December on fixing its reclaimed water system, according to Gina Carter, Delray Beach spokeswoman. The amount covered hiring outside companies to inspect each reclaimed water location and install missing backflow devices.
Reclaimed water locations that underwent repairs were activated only after the DOH approved.
Delray Beach was hampered in its testing individual locations twice this fall when the South County Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant took over the outfall pipe. The pipe normally carries reclaimed water to the eastern half of the city. During heavy rains, the plant is allowed to send treated wastewater into the ocean because the ground is saturated.
In a Dec. 7 email to the DOH, Juan Guevarez, assistant utilities director, and Victor Majtenyi, deputy utilities director, addressed three unanswered questions the DOH posed to the Utilities Department on Nov. 18.
Two questions concerned how many backflow devices were missing from properties with reclaimed water and how many cross connections had been found.
Steven Garcia, a DOH environmental supervisor, also asked the city to explain the discrepancy between the former utilities director’s report on the 2018 cross connection — when she had said no one became ill — and the telephone complaints of illness made to the water plant during that period.
The exact number of missing backflow devices was determined to be 581 properties after a Dec. 4 record review. The department previously had reported 567. Guevarez and Majtenyi apologized for the confusion.
On the second question, the utilities directors said the number of cross connections found since 2018 was three: 801 S. Ocean, 120 S. Ocean and 1029 Langer Way. The last two were found in April and July 2020.
The low number contradicts what Delray Beach staff had said in a February 2020 meeting with DOH staff. At that meeting, a city staffer said 12 cross connections were found. No explanation was given for the discrepancy. On the third issue, the directors found no telephone records about water customers reporting illnesses but discovered a May 17, 2019, letter, titled Cross-Connection Issue Facts, written by Christine Ferrigan, a utilities inspector. The letter states customers had complained about being sick from cross connections.
On Dec. 3, Guevarez interviewed the city staffers mentioned in the letter.
William Barr, utility locator, recalled a conversation with a resident at 1171 S. Ocean who said he and members of his household were getting sick. Barr passed the information to Scott Solomon, now retired from the city. Barr also said he did not know what happened with that information.
The other staff members mentioned in the letter did not witness or could not recall customers complaining about getting sick.
On Dec. 4, Guevarez did a telephone interview with Ferrigan. She said she told her former supervisor about customers getting sick. She did not send an email or another document before writing the letter in May 2019.
Ferrigan’s former supervisor and other management staff held meetings to discuss the findings of the cross connection report, but Ferrigan was not invited to those meetings. Guevarez was not able to find any other document that might explain the discrepancy.
In the spring, Delray Beach hired an outside consultant to review its reclaimed water system. The city paid him $20,000 for the report, which was supposed to include determining who had responsibility for installing and inspecting the backflow devices.
He did not find a culprit.
Instead, according to his Oct. 23 report, he found that Delray Beach did not have a point person in charge and lacked “institutional control” over the reclaimed water system.