By Thomas R. Collins
It ended simply: Somebody turned a valve and presto, no more greenish-brown plume of water gushing from the South Central Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant into the ocean a mile off the Delray Beach coast. Instead, that water was redirected deep, deep underground.
Getting to that point, though, took three years of work, $17 million, and came only after a staredown between plant officials and environmentalists, especially from Palm Beach Reef Rescue, who decried the effects of the treated sewage on coral reefs, mainly algae blooms but other maladies, such as coral diseases.
Additions to the plant include a hole that bores 3,000 feet into the ground, a new building full of filter beds — where water is cleansed by layers of sand and gravel — and new tanks, where water is treated with chlorine to kill bacteria and other impurities.
In April, the plant became the first South Florida wastewater utility — there are five others — to put an end to the easy method of disposal. The others, like South Central, are under orders by the Legislature to end the practice by 2025. But as permits need renewal, the practice might end sooner.
The plant, which was directed to make the changes by the Department of Environmental Protection, serves Delray Beach and Boynton Beach, and, by extension, the coastal area.
For Dennis Coates, the director of the plant, the closing of the valve is clearly a relief.
“It’s a tough argument to make that ocean outfall is a good thing,” he said in his office at the plant. “It just came down to our board thought that environmentally it was the best thing to do.”
Ed Tichenor, who runs Reef Rescue, said, “I think we forced them to do it.”
But, he added, “They deserve a tremendous amount of credit. … Whatever the politics were at the time and whatever the feelings were at that time, Delray is really an example of how the coastal sewage plants need to operate.”
The plant is also a step toward what Coates said is the goal of being able to re-use all of the wastewater for watering lawns, mainly golf courses.
Before April, most of the wastewater still had 300 parts per million of total suspended solids in it — basically, stuff floating in the water — after it was treated, which is nonetheless clean enough to be shot into the ocean. To be shot underground, though, it can have only 10 parts of suspended solids per million.
The water shot into the ocean also was allowed to have 800 fecal bacteria colonies per 100 milliliters. In the water that’s injected underground, 75 percent of such samples have to be completely free of fecal bacteria colonies, and the other samples are allowed only to have minimal colonies.
“It’s completely different,” Coates said. “The water has to be much, much cleaner.”
And only that cleaner version is permitted for golf course watering. Now, since it all is getting that extra cleaning, it all is eligible for re-use.
But the demand has to catch up. Now, just a few courses use the recycled water. In the Boynton area, they include Hunter’s Run, Country Club of Florida, Delray Dunes, Pine Tree and Quail Ridge. In Delray Beach, they include the Delray Beach city course, Delaire, The Hamlet, and Lakeview.
Joe May, who oversees injection wells for the Department of Environmental Protection’s local office, says it will monitor the well to make sure it is environmentally sound. The initial permit is for two years.
As for the reefs’ recovery, Tim Powell, head of the local office’s wastewater section, pointed out that there are many other sources of pollutants. “Only time will tell,” he said.
Tichenor, hopeful that without the outfall the water’s nutrients level will stay below the algal bloom “tipping point,” said the soft coral and sea fans will show improvement quickly, but other types may not.
“Hard coral could take hundreds of years to completely recover.”
Coastal towns serviced by the South Central plant are: Highland Beach, Hypoluxo, Village of Golf, Briny Breezes and parts of Gulf Stream.
The South Central Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, is located at 1801 North Congress Avenue, Delray Beach. Just west of I-95.