7960951455?profile=originalIn an effort to help Delray Beach residents who have been without reclaimed water for weeks, employees like Curtis Duscan (center) and city contractors Clay Carroll (left) and Anthony Coates have started watering lawns on the barrier island. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

Related: Standard safeguards usually stop mix of drinking, recycled water

By Jane Smith

As the lawns of coastal residents continued to parch, Delray Beach pushed the timeline for restoration of reclaimed water service from early March to the end of April, according to city plans.

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.

But due to causes the city continues to investigate, the partly treated sewage water cross-contaminated regular drinking water in a small number of houses, which sickened some residents and left a foul smell emanating from some kitchen faucets.

Delray Beach, focused on efforts to contain the coronavirus, now plans to restore the reclaimed water service citywide in phases, with the two public and two private golf courses returning to service first. The courses are west of the interstate. Then, the city would restore the barrier island service in six phases, reversing the order of how the lines were installed.

On March 25, Delray Beach employees distributed door hangers to scores of reclaimed water customers.

It noted that “the majority of potable meters at locations serviced by reclaimed water had the appropriate backflow protection. However, some metered connections had inadequate backflow protection or were not accessible for inspection.”

In those instances, the reclaimed water was locked out of the property.

“There’s some cause for optimism,” said Ned Wehler, a barrier island resident who hand-watered his plants throughout the hot and dry March. He noted this line in the city notice: “Please be advised that it may take up to four weeks for your property to be tested.”

The last time the city watering service stopped by his house was March 7.

But barrier island resident Bill Petry was puzzled by the notice.

In the second paragraph, it said, “The City will perform on-site cross-connection testing of individual properties.” Petry thought the cross-connection inspections were done. Cross-connections can create a health problem because they can possibly allow reclaimed water to mix with drinking water.

“What does it mean? It was not comforting at all,” said Petry, who serves on the board of the Beach Property Owners Association. He and his wife are seasonal residents who planned to return April 1 to New England.

Delray Beach turned off its reclaimed water system on Feb. 4 to avoid a citywide boil- water order that the Florida Department of Health wanted. As of March 31, the reclaimed water lines were not working to the barrier island. 

The last part of the barrier island system began operating in October 2018, but was flawed from the program’s start in 2005, according to notes from Christine Ferrigan, an industrial pretreatment inspector in the city Utilities Department. 

Ferrigan found the reclaimed water system was not installed or monitored properly by outside contractors, according to her notes released by the state Health Department under Florida’s open records law. 

Doing so cross-contaminated an unknown number of drinking water lines between October and December 2018 and potentially exposed residents to hepatitis A, Giardia, fecal coliform and other contaminants, according to Ferrigan’s notes.

The Health Department does not have a standard it uses when people claim to be sickened by poor water quality, according to Alexander Shaw, its spokesman. The department relies on the individual health providers to make that determination.

The Health Department was alerted to the Delray Beach situation on Jan. 2 by a concerned resident.

Neither Ferrigan nor Marjorie Craig, who was the utilities director in 2018, could be reached for comment.

As a result of the resident’s complaint — backed up with Ferrigan’s notes — the Health Department asked Delray Beach to issue a citywide boil water order.

Citywide action averted

City Manager George Gretsas, though, was able to persuade the department not to take such drastic action by ordering the reclaimed water system shut down and having all 1,326 reclaimed water connections inspected.

Although no cross-connections were found, city staff discovered that 237 reclaimed water customers citywide did not have backflow preventers, Gretsas said on March 2.

The devices prevent the reclaimed irrigation water from mixing with the drinking water supply, important because the city drinking water is supplied at a lower pressure. Water quality experts, though, say drinking reclaimed water — while not recommended — will not sicken a healthy person.

Delray Beach still has 13 barrier island locations to examine to see whether the drinking water meters have backflow devices, according to Gretsas’ March 16 letter to the Health Department.

He admitted that the city does not have dates that each property was connected to the reclaimed water system. “All available information was collected,” Gretsas wrote on March 16.

“If the city of Delray Beach is found to have failed to notify the DOH as required [of the possibility that residents became sick from drinking poor quality water], then that would be a violation,” wrote Shaw, the county Health Department spokesman. Because of the variables involved, Shaw could not say what the penalty might be.

When it’s finished complying with the Health Department, Delray Beach will hire a forensics firm to review the entire reclaimed water program, according to Gretsas.

“We spent a lot of the taxpayers’ money on city staff time and hiring contractors,” Gretsas said in February. “We want to find the cause before we point fingers.” 

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