By Joe Capozzi
South Palm Beach officials are taking tours of the West Palm Beach water treatment plant to gain a better understanding of the quality of the town’s drinking water supply.
Council members Ray McMillan and Monte Berendes took separate tours May 23. Mayor Bonnie Fischer and council members Robert Gottlieb and Bill LeRoy said they expected to take tours in early June.
West Palm Beach supplies drinking water to South Palm Beach under a contract that expires in 2030.
Invitations for the tours were extended by Darrel Graziani, assistant director of West Palm Beach public utilities, as part of outreach efforts nearly a year after unacceptably high levels of the blue-green algal toxin cylindrospermopsin were discovered in the water supply.
In May 2021, the city waited eight days before warning customers in West Palm Beach, Palm Beach and South Palm Beach not to drink from the tap, sparking concerns about why the notifications weren’t sent out sooner.
At the time, the city said it needed eight days to conduct a series of tests to confirm the contamination, which posed a risk to physically vulnerable customers.
But even after West Palm Beach finally disclosed the problem on May 28, South Palm Beach residents were left in the dark. They didn’t receive text messages or robocalls from the Palm Beach County Health Department, though West Palm Beach residents did, Fischer said.
In presentations to the Town Council in December 2021 and May of this year, Graziani said the city pledged to improve the notification system in the event of another problem. He also presented testing data showing vastly improved water quality over the past year.
On May 10, he invited the Town Council to tour the water treatment plant at Australian Avenue and Banyan Boulevard. A council meeting and tour were scheduled at the plant for May 23.
But on May 20, the town was forced to cancel the meeting/tour because the city, citing security concerns at the plant, refused to allow The Coastal Star or other members of the public to attend.
Under Florida law, council meetings must be held in public. As an alternative, the city agreed to host separate tours with individual council members.
Berendes and McMillan said the hourlong tours they took separately on May 23 reinforced their beliefs that South Palm Beach is getting quality drinking water. Both council members said they believe the problem in May 2021 was an isolated incident.
“They put in a lot of stopgaps so we don’t have those scares anymore,’’ Berendes said. “The water starts out not too pretty, but it comes out perfect or as close to perfect as you can get. I think they are doing more than they need to do to give us better quality water.’’
West Palm Beach relies on surface water that flows 20 miles from Lake Okeechobee to canals and Grassy Waters Preserve to Lake Mangonia and Clear Lake.
The city uses powdered activated carbon, post-filtration chlorination and ultraviolet disinfectant to make sure its drinking water is safe.
“When you see the amount of filtration and the different chemicals and how they use ultraviolet light tubes, it’s just phenomenal,’’ McMillan said.
“I feel totally confident that we are in good hands with our water.’’
Fischer, who has long been suspicious about the quality of the town’s drinking water supply, said she hoped the tour would give her a better understanding of the treatment process.
Gottlieb said the timing of the tours will also help council members as they prepare in coming years to consider possible alternatives for drinking water when the town’s contract with West Palm Beach expires.
“It’s time to review options and to make sure our residents get the best quality with good delivery,’’ he said.
Options include staying with West Palm Beach or contracting with other providers such as Palm Beach County, Manalapan and Lantana.
“It’s good to take a tour and see how they operate,’’ Gottlieb said.