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Southwest Florida homes drink toilet water

By Jeff Cull
The News-Press of Fort Myers

CAPE CORAL, Fla. - City utility workers mistakenly hooked up four homes to the dual water irrigation system — containing treated wastewater — instead of the potable-water lines that supply purified drinking water.

CAPE CORAL
WATER SYSTEM

• Drinking water: Pumped from 700-foot deep wells and is processed at the city’s reverse osmosis plant. The brackish water is passed through membranes that remove the salt. It is further processed to federal standards for drinking water.
• Irrigation water: The “reuse” water comes from residential sinks and toilets. It passes through filters and is treated with chlorine before being routed back to a resident’s lawn irrigation system. During high demand times, fresh water from canals, which also is treated, is added to the mix.

One Cape Coral family had been using the substandard water from their faucets for more than three months. Two other homes had been hooked up about a month ago. One was vacant.

“I’m livid,” said Ron Kazel, who found out Wednesday morning that his water was connected to the irrigation system. “I paid $15,000 for this.”

Although the switched lines have been fixed, there are health concerns for the residents.

Lee County Health Department officials said that although Cape Coral’s irrigation water is filtered and treated with chlorine, it won’t eliminate parasites. That can cause gastrointestinal problems, such as vomiting and diarrhea, said Dr. Judith Hartner, public health director.

Kazel would not comment on whether he and his wife were experiencing health problems.

“Mistakes were made,” said City Manager Terry Stewart. “The best we can do is make it right.”

The irrigation or “reuse” water comes from residential sinks and toilets, and is treated biologically at one of the city’s wastewater plants before being routed back to a resident’s lawn irrigation system. It often is blended with fresh water from canals.

Residents in the southwest Cape area are paying about $15,000 for the newly installed sewer, water and irrigation lines as part of the city’s utility expansion program. Kazel had been hooked up to the dual water line since mid-June.

The homeowners will find out today whether tests show that their water is now safe to use. They have to boil any water they use until the tests say it’s OK.

The other homes’ owners could not be reached for comment.

City officials said they received a complaint Monday from a homeowner in the new utility expansion area called SW-1 in the city’s southwest. The owner said the water quality did not seem up to standards.

The city sent technicians to investigate and discovered that irrigation water was hooked into the home’s potable water lines.

By then, another customer in the SW-1 utility area had complained about low water pressure early in the mornings, which is about the time most irrigation systems are being used. City officials then ordered inspections of all 580 homes that recently had been hooked to the new utility lines.

Lee County's water system, in which Cape Coral is located, had been operated by a private company for several years. The City thought it would have greater control by taking back operations as a municipal function.