By Jane Smith
Delray Beach barrier island residents have endured three reclaimed water shutoffs in less than two years.
The first two were short, under 10 days. This year, the entire reclaimed water system was shut down for months, starting in early February.
By late August, slightly more than 7%, or 55 parcels, of the barrier island homes were still waiting to have the reclaimed water service restored.
“It’s the safest reclaimed water system in the country,” said Hassan Hadjimiry, new utilities director for Delray Beach. “It was disconnected, and every installation was inspected and surveyed for crossed connections before the parcel was placed back into service.”
Delray Beach has spent at least $1.05 million to bring its reclaimed water system into compliance with state standards by inspecting every reclaimed water connection in the city.
At the Aug. 11 City Commission meeting, Hadjimiry broke down the expense into three categories: $254,876.13 for materials, including backflow preventers; $558,647.14 for contractors; and $228,845.83 for staff overtime.
He also said 55 of the 68 offline accounts had switched to drinking water for irrigation. Most of the switched accounts sit along South Ocean Boulevard.
“The properties there are complex. They are large, 2 to 3 acres, with lots of concrete,” Hadjimiry said. “It’s too hard to bring them into compliance.”
The estates also sit below 801 S. Ocean Blvd., where a resident called the Florida Department of Health on Jan. 2 to say she was not adequately informed of a crossed connection issue in December 2018.
Some of the South Ocean residents reported they were getting sick from drinking the contaminated water between October and December 2018. Their complaints were not reported to the Florida Department of Health, as required.
That investigation led to notes compiled by a Utilities Department inspector who was hired in June 2017. Christine Ferrigan claimed whistleblower status in early January.
On Feb. 3, three Utilities Department managers and an assistant city attorney met with six representatives of the Florida DOH. The six included two department attorneys.
City staff “felt intimidated by the unexpected firepower they were confronted by,” according to a staff Feb. 20 draft letter to Rafael Reyes, environmental director at the Florida DOH.
The health agency wanted Delray Beach to issue a citywide boil water order.
Instead, the city offered to shut down its entire reclaimed water program, which was accomplished on the evening of Feb. 4.
With approval of the Florida DOH, the city is restoring the reclaimed water service in phases.
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 4.6 million gallons a day by 2025, according to the settlement. Its current level is 2.6 million gallons a day, which can fluctuate depending on the rainwater received, Hadjimiry said.
Most of the city’s water customers on the barrier island have reclaimed water service for lawn irrigation. The golf courses, city parks and master-metered communities west of the interstate also use reclaimed water for irrigation.
A crossed connection happens when reclaimed water pipes are mistakenly connected to the drinking water supply. The reclaimed water can be used only on landscaping, not for watering vegetable plants, filling pools or connecting with outside showers.
Backflow preventers are needed to stop the reclaimed water from mixing with the city’s drinking water supply. When Delray Beach contractors inspected every reclaimed water location earlier this year, they reported 194 backflow preventers were missing on the barrier island — a little over 25% of the required installations.
It was also discovered that 130 city water customers were never connected to the Delray Beach reclaimed water program, despite the city rule that mandates connection to the reclaimed system if lines exist in front of the homes.
Most sit on the barrier island, Hadjimiry said. No records exist to explain why they were not connected.
Delray Beach hired a forensics firm in late April to investigate the reclaimed water system since its start, Hadjimiry said. That report will determine responsibility of the system — including construction and inspections. It will be ready in late September, he said.
The city also is trying to avoid civil fines from the Florida DOH, which sent a warning letter to Delray Beach on July 1. That letter listed 13 possible violations of the reclaimed water program in Delray Beach.
In response, the city has created a Regulatory Compliance Section with four employees who report directly to the utilities director. They will carry out the city’s cross-connection control program and audit all accounts requiring backflow preventers.
The city expects full implementation in about 12 months, Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez wrote in her July 16 reply to the Florida DOH.
Alvarez also said the city will supply reclaimed water customers with annual notices about the origin, nature and characteristics of reclaimed water; how it can be safely used; and limits of its use.
In addition, Delray Beach will provide instructions for complying with the reclaimed water design standards for homebuilders, according to the July 16 letter. The city standard calls for reclaimed pipes and fixtures to be purple in color and drinking water pipes and fixtures to be dark blue.
City leaders, including Hadjimiry and Alvarez, met on July 22 with Florida DOH staff to review the possible violations and Delray Beach’s response.
“The Florida DOH is currently reviewing the city’s responses,” Gina Carter, city spokeswoman, wrote in an Aug. 18 email. The Florida DOH declined to say when it will issue a final report.
Meanwhile, the city has found two other crossed connections this year at two barrier island condominium buildings.
In April, inspectors discovered the reclaimed water pipes were wrongly connected to the drinking water pipes at 120 S. Ocean Blvd. The city issued a boil water order for that 30-unit building on April 22.
The Ocean Place property manager can use the drinking water system for irrigation while it investigates the crossed connection, Carter wrote.
The other condo building, known as Commodore Apartments, has eight units and sits at the northeast corner of Gleason Street and Langer Way. The cross connection was discovered July 7 by city inspectors.
The city notified the Florida DOH, as required.
As long as the backflow device was installed, inspected and certified, the city did not have to notify the Commodore Apartments residents within 24 hours, according to a July 8 email from the Florida DOH.
Hadjimiry sent a July 10 email asking the city water resources administrator to “please notify the eight residents at 1029 Langer Way and advise them that we discovered an onsite cross connection.”