Reclaimed water project lacked ‘institutional control’
By Jane Smith
Delray Beach has not had “institutional control” over its reclaimed water program, according to a forensic review released on Oct. 23.
The program has not had the appropriate resources, funding, oversight, policies and internal expertise in place to effectively manage its parts, Fred Bloetscher, president of Public Utility Management & Services Inc., wrote in a report the city hired him to do.
One of the most serious findings was that without city personnel apparently present, water customers had “converted back” to potable water on their own by hiring a plumber to go into the meter box or connect to the city’s water main to re-establish potable water service for irrigation.
“It’s all or nothing with reclaimed water in residential areas,” Bloetscher said. “You can’t have residents opting out on their own. It’s a criminal act if they tamper with the city’s public water system.”
Bloetscher’s Hollywood-based firm was hired by Delray Beach in late April to review its reclaimed water program. The city agreed to pay $20,000 for the study. His work experience includes utility department positions in two Broward County coastal cities: Dania Beach and Hollywood.
Delray Beach has relied on consultants to design, construct and monitor the estimated $30.59 million reclaimed water system since its beginning in 2003.
Reclaimed water is highly treated wastewater that can be used only for lawn irrigation, but it is not suitable for human or pet consumption.
Public Utility Management said its investigation was hampered by a lack of records available prior to 2018. That’s one reason the firm focused its report on the final area where reclaimed water was installed on the barrier island.
The work included the installation of residential reclaimed connections and other utility infrastructure such as potable water mains as well as sewer and storm water mains. The project ran from January 2018 to March 2019. Within this area there were reports of cross connections and contamination between reclaimed water and drinking water and of residents opting out of the program with no city oversight.
The area studied in the report included Lewis Cove south to Del Haven Drive on the west side of State Road A1A and along the east side of A1A from Casuarina Road south to Del Haven.
After reading the review, Mayor Shelly Petrolia agreed that the city needs to strengthen its mandatory reclaimed water ordinance.
New Utilities Director Hassan Hadjimiry concurred.
His department is working closely with staff from the city’s Development Services, Code Enforcement and Attorney’s Office. That approach will allow for greater oversight of the reclaimed water permitting process and enforcement of the city’s ordinance, according to Hadjimiry, who responded via email.
“Customers who chose to disconnect without proper oversight are potentially endangering the safety of the public water provided to other city customers,” he wrote.
In addition, he stated that he already has addressed many of Bloetscher’s concerns.
Culprit not identified
The report also found that the city allowed backflow prevention devices to be buried, making them difficult to access. The buried devices were cheaper to install and their underground placement meant they were out of sight.
“Esthetics are not important when you are protecting public health,” said Bloetscher, associate dean for undergraduate studies and community outreach in environmental engineering at Florida Atlantic University.
The city staffer or consultant who made that decision was not identified in the report.
Bloetscher suggested the city replace its dual-check valves, which cost about $500, with the more expensive devices, called reduced pressure zone devices, which sit above the ground. The RPZs cost about $1,800 each.
To help with ongoing costs of the upgrades, Bloetscher suggested the city replace the devices over time as they wear out.
Dual-check valves and RPZs are backflow preventers that protect the drinking water supply from contamination. RPZs are better because they dispose of any backward-flowing water if their valves fail.
The area studied in the report was found to have 21 missing backflow devices out of 136 locations.
The project area just to the north was missing 54 backflow devices out of 150 total. Work in that area began in May 2016 and ended in February 2017. In a separate contract, awarded to another firm, backflow devices supplied by the city were installed in the adjacent area.
In all, 194 backflow devices were found to be missing on the barrier island.
Most cities in the county, including Delray Beach, use the cheaper dual-check valves because they are allowed under the state’s Administrative Code. Dual-check backflow preventers cannot be tested and must be replaced every five years, according to Hadjimiry.
Delray Beach requires larger residential buildings and commercial sites to use RPZs, Hadjimiry wrote.
The American Water Works Association, an international nonprofit aimed at improving water quality, recommends using an RPZ for its superior protection of the public water supply.
One of the most troubling concerns Bloetscher’s report found was that Delray Beach does not have a point person in charge of the installation of backflow preventers and inspection at each reclaimed water location.
City documents included in the report state that the city would provide oversight for inspections and that a “cross-connection specialist” was to perform the inspections, but no position within the city was found to exist and there was nothing on file to show the inspections had been done.
Since arriving in early June, Hadjimiry has created a regulatory compliance section within his department to implement the cross-connection control and industrial pretreatment programs. An existing open position is being reclassified to a cross-connection control coordinator to oversee that program, Hadjimiry wrote.
Bloetscher also noted that city staff added a change order to the construction contract in August 2018, adding backflow preventers at a cost of just over $26,000. The original contract did not include them for the installation of reclaimed water in the southern portion of the barrier island. Whether the devices were part of the original contracts for the other four barrier island areas of the reclaimed water project is unknown.
Petrolia found the review hard to read and lacking in key information. “Who was responsible for adding the backflow preventers?” she asked. “I thought that was the purpose of spending $20,000 on the forensic study.”
Director wants to add jobs
Despite rumors swirling on social media, the City Commission was found to have little involvement with the reclaimed water system, according to the review.
Mark Lauzier, who was city manager in December 2018, updated the commission at its Dec. 11, 2018, meeting. He talked of a cross connection in the final area of the reclaimed water installation, which led to a boil-water order for the southern portion of the barrier island.
Cross connections happen when reclaimed water lines are connected to drinking water pipes.
Lauzier stated “staff will address the communications issues and require maps for these type of things in the future.”
In February, then City Manager George Gretsas told commissioners how he shut down the reclaimed water system to avoid a citywide boil water order. That was done to satisfy Florida Department of Health inspectors. They were investigating a complaint from a South Ocean Boulevard resident who did not think she was adequately informed of the December 2018 cross connection.
In early May, Gretsas rated the reclaimed water program a D-minus in his presentation to the commission.
Delray Beach has another problem with how it tracks the reclaimed water program, Bloetscher found.
The city has two methods to record locations, installation dates, tests and photos for each reclaimed water site. Some staffers use Excel spreadsheets, while others use graphic information system maps. The GIS method is preferable, according to the review.
As part of the cross-connection control program, Delray Beach will use a web-based system for testing, tracking and reporting of backflow preventers, according to Hadjimiry.
At the Nov. 17 City Commission meeting, he will seek commission approval to add four new positions — professional engineer, plan reviewer/engineer and two inspectors — to the department’s engineering section. The change will require a budget amendment, Hadjimiry wrote.
Delray Beach also plans to educate its reclaimed water customers, following AWWA guidelines, by providing annual notifications to make sure customers know about the origin, nature and characteristics of reclaimed water, according to Hadjimiry.
“The city’s website has been updated to include educational information and videos on reclaimed water and its uses,” Hadjimiry wrote.
Barrier island resident Chris Heffernan was not surprised by any of Bloetscher’s findings.
“The city manager form of government is clearly not working. Delray Beach has outgrown it,” he said of a system in which the commission makes the policies and an appointed manager runs the city. In other places the elected mayor runs the city.
“We are a city run by bureaucrats and part-time politicians,” Heffernan said.