By Jane Smith
The city’s reclaimed water program, spawned in 2006 with the intent to stop the spewing of millions of gallons of wastewater into the ocean each year, was haunted from the beginning by mismanagement and lack of oversight, City Manager George Gretsas said on May 5.
“There was negligence and a lot of things that should not have happened,” Gretsas told Delray Beach city commissioners at their virtual meeting. “The mismanagement is very clear. There was a decade of it … lack of contractor oversight. No records were kept. It was a real problem for us as we’re trying to fix it.”
If Gretsas had to give the program a grade, he said it would be D-minus, and only that because it was well intentioned. Delray Beach shut down the system Feb. 4 to avoid a citywide boil-water order that the Florida Department of Health wanted amid an investigation into complaints that reclaimed water had mixed with drinking water.
The city is turning on the reclaimed water in phases with approval from the health department. Of the city’s 1,236 reclaimed water customers, 72% have that service restored, Gretsas said May 19. Another 15% are awaiting some type of property owner action, according to Gretsas. An additional 13% are awaiting inspection.
Thirty barrier island homes were found to have the reclaimed lines installed closer than 3 feet to the drinking water lines, according to an April 29 city email to state health officials. A 3-foot distance between pipes is required by Florida Department of Environmental Protection rules. The city wants to restore the reclaimed water now and move those pipes later. Local DOH leaders were mulling whether to allow that as of mid-May.
Once the system is restored, all violations will be forwarded to the local health department legal team, Steve Garcia, a DOH environmental supervisor, wrote in a May 11 email.
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 to stop sending raw sewage into the ocean.
The city must reuse 3.85 million gallons a day by 2025, according to the settlement. Its current level is 2.85 million gallons daily.
Most of the city’s water customers on the barrier island have reclaimed water service for lawn irrigation. The golf courses, city parks and facilities and master-metered communities west of the interstate also use reclaimed water.
On April 22, the city found its first crossed connection under the current investigation, according to DOH emails. Crossed connections happen when the drinking water lines are mistakenly connected to the reclaimed water lines. The DOH insisted the city issue a boil-water order for the 30-unit condominium, Ocean Place at 120 S. Ocean Blvd.
“I remember my wife boiling pots of water,” said Bob Victorin, an Ocean Place resident and Beach Property Owners’ Association president.
The condominiums were approved to use potable water for the irrigation system for 90 days while the property manager locates and corrects plumbing issues, Missie Barletto, assistant Public Works director, wrote in a May 18 email. “Once the repair has been completed, the condominium property will be returned to reclaimed water for irrigation.”
Debbie Lynott, who lives on Miramar Drive, said she noticed residents using old-fashioned sprinklers to water their lawns in February. Her reclaimed water lines were not installed until early April. Her service was turned on April 30, according to the city. “I’m used to being forgotten,” she said. “My house is the only home on Miramar between Gleason Street and Venetian Drive.”
Former Mayor Cary Glickstein wrote in a May 11 email to The Coastal Star that he was not told of any problems when he was in office from 2013 to 2018. “Further, neither I nor my commission colleagues were made aware of any system functionality problems during any public meetings.”
Glickstein, who lives on Waterway Lane, as of May 11 was among those waiting for his reclaimed water to be restored.
Current Mayor Shelly Petrolia said, “I’m hoping this is a one- and only-time debacle. The system has to be revamped. We need to figure out who is responsible, including for the backflow devices — the homeowner or the city.”
Even so, the city’s delayed response caused frustration.
In mid-April, after the reclaimed water system was restored along Del Haven Drive, the city failed to open all valves. That forced Ken MacNamee to spend time checking his sprinkler system, checking the circuit breaker and finally opening the meter pit where he discovered the closed valve. He borrowed a plumbing tool from a neighbor to open the valve.
“This is just another gaffe in this drawn-out debacle,” MacNamee wrote in an April 20 email.
Residents on Del Haven and four streets north were the first on the barrier island to see their reclaimed water restored, on April 17. Their systems were activated in late 2018. Gretsas, who started as city manager on Jan. 6, received a letter on Feb. 4 requiring the city to issue a boil-water order citywide.
The Florida DOH had received a complaint Jan. 2 about cross connections between drinking and reclaimed water. Christine Ferrigan, an inspector with the Utilities Department, provided notes to the investigation showing how the program was mismanaged from the start.
Gretsas, though, persuaded the DOH leaders to agree that the city would shut off its reclaimed water citywide to investigate. He wanted to avoid the boil-water order, which would have forced the hospital and restaurants to comply.
The city had to hire a contractor to create a database showing the locations of the drinking water and reclaimed water meters and the presence and types of backflow preventers on the drinking water systems.
City staff discovered that 237 reclaimed water customers citywide didn’t have backflow preventers, Gretsas said March 2.
The devices are an extra layer of protection against the mixing of reclaimed and drinking water.
“We were not doing the types of things that need to be done in asset management,” Gretsas said. “We just didn’t know where the devices were.”
That lack of information was evident in a spreadsheet the city sent to the DOH on March 6. It had many blank spaces, lacking dates when the reclaimed water was first connected, when the backflow devices were installed and when they were reinspected.
In addition, Delray Beach went with backflow preventers that have a 5-year lifespan because they were cheaper, Gretsas said city staffers told him.
But that should change soon with new management, he said.
Hassan Hadjimiry will start June 2 as the city’s water utilities director.
Gretsas said he did a national search and found the best candidate nearby. Hadjimiry retired May 5 from the county as its deputy director of water utilities.
Hadjimiry, who started with the county in 1982, was named as the Water Reuse Person of the Year in 2009. The Florida Water Environment Association has given the statewide award annually since 2004.
Once Hadjimiry starts work, city commissioners will have options put before them.
They can select the types of backflow preventers, an inspection and replacement program or, if they prefer, go to injecting the reclaimed water underground — which would be more costly, Gretsas said.
The commissioners also will hear about the costs of fixing the system. They include paying overtime for city staff, hiring contractors and consultants, adding new backflow devices, and providing water and a crew to irrigate lawns while the reclaimed water system was down. The amount spent since Feb. 4 was not available.
Delray Beach has hired a company run by Fred Bloetscher, a Florida Atlantic University associate dean in the engineering department, to investigate the reclaimed water program, Gretsas said.
To the city’s reclaimed water customers, Gretsas said, “I’m sorry this happened and sorry it went on for a decade.”