By Rich Pollack
Back in the early 2000s, when Delray Beach city leaders first considered providing golf courses and other large-scale users with reclaimed water for irrigation, conservation was a primary concern.
“It was good public policy to say ‘let’s give the aquifer a break,’” said former Mayor Jeff Perlman, who was on the City Commission at the time. “It just seemed to make sense from an ecological standpoint.”
While saving millions of gallons per day of treated water was a good idea from an environmental standpoint, it also turned out to be a big step toward helping the city meet regulatory requirements, which set a cap on how much water the city could pull out of the ground.
Providing reclaimed water also had the side benefit of generating additional revenue to the city’s water and sewer fund.
But the city experienced a drop of more than $100,000 in reclaimed water revenue from 2019 to 2020 after leaders decided to stop providing reclaimed water to the barrier island for four months because a mix of drinking water and reclaimed water was discovered. Further, 10% of homeowners east of the Intracoastal Waterway have decided not to reconnect to the system.
The last portion of the reclaimed water project on the barrier island was finished in March 2019.
According to the city, revenue from reclaimed water fell from $289,325 to $177,825 in 2020. Last year’s number is also lower than 2016 revenue of $203,328.
To be fair, $100,000 is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the city’s utilities budget, which is about $36 million in the current financial year.
At the same time, some of the revenue decline can be attributed to a wet 2020, which the National Weather Service says had almost 9 more inches of rain than in 2019.
Still, as people on the barrier island choose not to use reclaimed water for irrigation on properties that are often lushly landscaped and instead replace it with potable water, demand for potable water increases.
Fortunately for Delray Beach, that increased demand is not pushing the city near capacity limits set by the South Florida Water Management District, which is charged with making sure a large chunk of the state doesn’t run out of water.
“Usage fluctuates but the city has not yet experienced capacity issues,” a city spokeswoman wrote in an email.
The city, according to the spokeswoman, had a daily flow in January of between 13 million and 15 million gallons a day to users, significantly less than its 26 million gallon a day treatment capacity and its 19.1 million gallon per day supply capacity.
The city will submit a new water supply plan to the state in July, according to the email.
Capacity concerns led Delray Beach to bring reclaimed water to the barrier island in the first place, according to former City Manager David Harden.
“The driving force was to conserve potable water,” he said.
At that time the South Florida Water Management District provided Delray Beach with a $500,000 grant to install reclaimed water on the barrier island.
One reason the city got the grant was it showed that by providing reclaimed water to the barrier island, it would be able to meet permit requirements. The district’s consumptive-use permit projected treated-water needs forward 20 years and how much water the city could pull from the aquifer.
Harden said the city would not have been able to meet the supply projections without providing reclaimed water east of the Intracoastal Waterway.
“The residents on the barrier island used a lot of potable water,” he said.
Harden said that the city’s decision to close off an ocean outfall, which at the time made it possible to send treated effluent into the ocean, helps make it possible to provide reclaimed water to the barrier island.
With treated water either being used for irrigation or sent into deep wells, Delray Beach was able to use the outfall pipe under the Intracoastal to provide reclaimed water to the barrier island.
At the time, Perlman said, the city held meetings with residents to assure them reclaimed water was safe.
“It was a big effort to get the barrier island residents to understand what we were doing,” he said. Ú