Editor's Note: Delray commission owes taxpayers the truth
By Jane Smith
After five months of emergency repairs to the city’s botched reclaimed water system, 90% of the customers should have been back on line by June 30, the city said.
As of June 17, the cost of the repairs had grown to more than $850,000 in labor and materials and more than $100,000 in overtime pay for city employees, city spokeswoman Gina Carter wrote in an email response to questions from The Coastal Star.
Fixing the rest of the system could push the bill over $1 million.
“That’s a lot of money to fix a system that was working fine for most people,” said Bill Petry, a barrier island resident who did not yet have his reclaimed service restored. For Mayor Shelly Petrolia, the cost was unfortunate, but necessary.
“We cannot put a price on the health and safety of our citizens,” she said. “The city had to scrutinize the entire system at great cost in both time and expense.”
The system was poorly designed and maintained and has been mismanaged practically from its inception in 2006.
The city has hired a firm run by Fred Bloetscher, an associate dean at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, to conduct a total review of the city’s reclaimed water program, Carter said. Bloetscher’s firm will receive a maximum of $20,000 under an emergency order. The forensic engineering investigation will be finished in September.
These costs and ongoing system repair costs come at a time when Delray Beach has an $8 million deficit for the current budget year, Petrolia said. The city lost revenue from business tax receipts, parking meter income, parking violations, valet stand income and rental income from city-owned properties during the coronavirus shutdown.
“It’s in bits and pieces, but it all adds up,” she said.
In early May, City Manager George Gretsas apologized to the City Commission and residents and graded the program a D-minus. The only reason he didn’t give it an F was the initial good intention to stop piping raw sewage into the ocean.
The reclaimed water lines provide partly treated wastewater meant solely for lawn watering. The lines were installed as part of a settlement that Delray Beach reached with state and federal regulators.
The city must reuse 3.85 million gallons a day by 2025, according to the settlement. Its current level is 2.85 million gallons a day.
Most of the city’s water customers on the barrier island have reclaimed water service for lawn irrigation. Golf courses, city parks and facilities, and master-metered communities west of the interstate also use reclaimed water. There are about 1,500 reclaimed water customers citywide, according to Gretsas.
On Feb. 4, the city shut down Delray Beach’s reclaimed water program to avoid a citywide boil water order. The Florida Department of Health wanted that drastic move after it began an investigation into complaints that the city’s drinking water had become contaminated with reclaimed water.
In late April, the city discovered 30 barrier island homes had reclaimed water lines installed within three feet of the drinking water lines. The city requested that it be allowed to restore the reclaimed water service to the homes soon, instead of waiting for the lines to be moved in six months.
The close proximity of the lines was thought to be a potential Florida Department of Environmental Protection violation. In Florida, the local DOH enforces the DEP rules.
But when the local DOH leaders met with their counterparts at the Florida DEP, they “determined there was a distinction between the mains and service lines,” Steven Garcia, a DOH environmental supervisor, wrote in a May 28 email to his supervisor.
Delray Beach is inspecting each reclaimed location at the behest of the local DOH.
As the city made the inspections, it found 268 locations without any backflow prevention devices, which prevent the wastewater from mixing with drinking water. Slightly more than 71% served barrier island residences.
The city has not found records indicating why the backflow preventers were not installed.
Garcia has written that the DOH is waiting for the entire Delray Beach reclaimed water system to be restored before possible violations will be forwarded to the DOH legal team.
Pressure devices an issue
As of June 17, five condominium buildings on the barrier island were still not reconnected to the reclaimed water service, Carter wrote. One required a reduced pressure zone device, which is the owner’s responsibility to install, she wrote.
The RPZ is a type of high-hazard backflow device that protects the drinking water system by disposing of any backward-flowing water if check or relief valves fail.
Two other condo buildings have installed their RPZ devices and are ready for inspection, according to Carter. The other two are waiting DOH approval.
“However, all commercial accounts and when a larger than 2-inch meter is required, water customers must install an RPZ at their own expense and provide the city with annual testing and recertification of the RPZ,” Carter wrote.
The RPZs cost between $3,000 and $4,000 each, not including installation or testing. Basic backflow devices used with single-family homes vary in cost from $50 to $500, depending on quality and size.
Chris Heffernan, who lives in a seven-unit condo complex on Thomas Street, fought the installation of the RPZ device at his building. He thought the city was creating a two-tiered level of service on the barrier island when forcing the high-priced backflow devices on condominium buildings.
“Within two hours, city workers were at my condo,” he said. They installed a lower-cost dual check valve at the city’s expense.
His condo building likely was able to use a dual check valve because the meter size was less than 2 inches, according to Carter.
The Dorchester, with 20 units at 200 N. Ocean Blvd., never was connected to the reclaimed water program. The reclaimed water main sits on Thomas Street and is available to serve this property, according to Carter.
“There are no records to indicate why they were not connected,” Carter wrote in a June 19 email.