By Jane Smith
Delray Beach in March sent a letter and color brochure to coastal residents explaining how the city’s reclaimed water program works — more than a year after the program imploded and nearly prompted a citywide boil-water order that could have lasted for months.
The city mailed letters to single-family homeowners and condominium associations explaining what reclaimed water is and how it can be used safely. The letter states that reclaimed water is “for irrigation purposes ONLY.”
A trifold brochure, “Reclaimed Water (reuse) System and Cross-connection Program,” was attached to letters sent to reclaimed water customers citywide.
“Water use studies reveal that up to 70% of the water flowing to meters monthly is used to maintain landscape and grass,” according to the brochure. “Using reclaimed water conserves valuable potable water resources.”
The brochure also explains that reclaimed water “is highly treated and disinfected wastewater.”
The letters also gave residents the option of signing up for reclaimed water updates.
Meanwhile, state regulators still are reviewing the origins of mistakes in the reclaimed water program. The city may have to pay almost $3 million in fines for violations of the law.
A draft Jan. 7 memo from the state Department of Environmental Protection to Delray Beach interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez called the violations “willful or intentional in nature.”
City staffers had known for more than 12 years what was needed to implement a safe reclaimed water project, according to July 2008 letters between the city’s Utilities Department and Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County.
Most of the possible fines stem from the lack of adequate backflow prevention at 581 homes and condo associations. The health department issued a memo that proposed to fine Delray Beach $5,000 for each site, or a total of $2.9 million.
The city has hired an environmental law firm to represent it should it contest the fine amount, as well as a public relations firm to counter some of the most outrageous social media and political postings about the program. All questions from the media must go through the firm.
Backflow devices prevent reclaimed water from contaminating the drinking water supply, but a lack of oversight and improper hook-ups allowed the recycled water to penetrate the drinking water in some homes and condos.
“The most recent version of the memo was sent to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on March 15 and comments were received from FDEP on March 17,” Alexander Shaw, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County, wrote on March 24 in response to questions from The Coastal Star.
The health department is reviewing and revising the penalty memo, addressing the FDEP comments, according to Shaw.
“The department does not know when the penalties memo will be finalized. It is a process … without a fixed time limit,” Shaw wrote.
The department has been investigating the city’s reclaimed water program for more than a year. On Jan. 2, 2020, a South Ocean Boulevard homeowner called the department to say she was not adequately informed about a cross connection found during December 2018 in her neighborhood.
Delray Beach was forced to turn off its reclaimed water system in February 2020 to avoid a citywide boil-water order triggered by the resident’s complaint. The system was turned back on in phases, with 90% of the barrier island service restored by the end of June.
In the past year, the city has spent slightly more than $1 million to bring its reclaimed water program back into compliance.
Delray Beach can contest the findings of the civil fines after it receives them.
By Jane Smith