By Jane Smith
Delray Beach commissioners were flabbergasted at their Jan. 19 meeting when they were told about a draft report that details a nearly $3 million fine for violations in the city’s reclaimed water program.
“The draft is sending the public into a tizzy,” Commissioner Adam Frankel said.
Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez said she just saw the draft about an hour before the start of the 4 p.m. meeting. The draft letter was addressed to her on Jan. 7 by Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the Palm Beach County branch of the Florida Department of Health.
Commissioners agreed they need to send communication out on the city’s various social media platforms to let residents know that the letter was just a draft and not a final list of violations.
“We have drafts floating around all of the time,” said Lynn Gelin, city attorney. “It is not the final letter. It’s a bit reckless to publish it.”
Before the DOH’s violations become final, the state Department of Environmental Protection will have to approve the letter, Gelin said. Then, the city has a right to contest the findings.
Alvarez stepped away from the meeting to take a phone call from Rafael Reyes, environmental public health director at the DOH. He said there was no fine or consent order, Alvarez told the commission.
“He will meet with us to discuss the findings. Then, I will let the commissioners know,” Alvarez said.
The last time city officials met with the local DOH leaders was in October, Alvarez said.
The city’s outside counsel made a public records request that was filled on Jan. 14. Because DOH included the draft letter in its response, it is now a public record, Gelin said.
The biggest fine, $2.9 million, was for failing to ensure adequate backflow protection at 581 locations where Delray Beach provides drinking and reclaimed water. The city may be dinged $5,000 for each of the locations, according to state rules.
The Jan. 14 CityWatch column written by Randy Schultz put out a breaking news email blast about the draft letter. Delray Beach commissioners found this paragraph troubling:
“As part of the proposed consent order with the state, Delray Beach would have to issue this public notice: “The City of Delray Beach cannot assure utility customers that the drinking water produced and distributed met the standards of the Safe Water Drinking Act for the period from inception of the reclaimed water service beginning in 2007 to the time reclaimed water was deactivated on February 4, 2020.”
The DOH has been investigating the city’s reclaimed water program for more than one year.
In early January of 2019, a South Ocean Boulevard homeowner called the DOH to complain about a cross connection found at her house in December 2018.
The city was forced to turn off its reclaimed water system on Feb. 4 to avoid a citywide boil water order, triggered by the 801 S. Ocean resident’s complaint.
The city's utilities department hired inspectors to review each reclaimed water location for cross connections in which drinking water pipes were mistakenly connected to ones that carry reclaimed water. Reclaimed water is highly treated wastewater but is suitable only for lawn irrigation.
Then the city examined each site for backflow preventers. In all, 194 backflow devices were found to be missing on the barrier island. Backflow preventers are needed to stop the reclaimed water from flowing back into the city’s drinking water supply.
In May, then-City Manager George Gretsas said the program was botched from its start in 2007.
Delray Beach used outside contractors to design, build and inspect the system. In the most recent area of the barrier island where 801 S. Ocean is located, 21 of 156 locations did not have backflow preventers.
The city hired a consultant to do a forensic study of its reclaimed water system. The city paid $20,000 for his report, which was supposed to include determining 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.