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Creative water sources key to future

Friday, February 17, 2006

As Palm Beach County's population continues to swell, that will mean higher demands on our primary freshwater source the Biscayne Aquifer which is "recharged" by rainfall and water from the regional Everglades ecosystem.

This source, which Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties share, may not alone be able to meet water needs. An effective way to address this challenge is to reduce dependency on the aquifer and the Everglades through diversification and development of alternatives, including reusing treated wastewater, using brackish water sources and underground storage for water. Palm Beach County is doing just that well ahead of new laws requiring that growth be directly linked to the ability to sustain water supplies (including alternative water supplies), water resources and related natural systems.

Palm Beach County's 11 treatment facilities already collectively reuse an impressive 30 percent of wastewater, which is highly treated and reused for irrigation and to support wetlands. This is much higher than counties to the south that reuse less than 7 percent of their wastewater a key reason that Miami-Dade's request for a new permit adding 100 million gallons per day to its allotment was held up last month until the county fulfills South Florida Water Management District requirements.

Of the approximately 119 million gallons of wastewater generated per day in Palm Beach County, more than 35 million gallons are reused. Reclaimed water is used for golf course and lawn irrigation. In fact, 35 golf courses and 6,484 residences use reclaimed water to keep fairways and lawns green. Utilities employing reuse include Loxahatchee River District in Jupiter, Seacoast Utilities, West Palm Beach, Wellington, Boynton/Delray Beach and Boca Raton.

The Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department alone, for example, recycles 50 percent of its wastewater and not all for watering lawns or golf courses. Some of this "created water" has innovative uses: 175 acres in Boynton Beach and Delray Beach have been transformed into the Wakodahatchee and Green Cay wetlands ecosystems using reclaimed water. These wetlands, home to a host of flora, fish, birds and other wildlife, are open to the public and attract thousands of outdoor enthusiasts a year.

West Palm Beach's innovative Wetlands Based Water Reclamation Project involves building an indirect potable reuse plant the first of its kind in Florida providing advanced treatment of reclaimed water from the East Central Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant. This facility will begin operation in the spring and will create 10 million gallons of alternative water per day.

In addition to using reclaimed water, utilities have tapped the brackish Floridan Aquifer using reverse osmosis to remove the salts to make drinkable water. For more than 16 years, Jupiter has been using this technology to create an alternative water source capable of generating 14 million gallons per day. Other utilities tapping (or under construction for) the Floridan Aquifer include Tequesta, Lake Worth, Manalapan and the Lake Region.

Aquifer storage and recovery is another alternative source used by local utilities. ASR stores water in an acceptable aquifer during times when water is available and later recovers this water during times when it is needed. West Palm Beach, Boynton Beach and Palm Beach County have incorporated ASR.

As part of our mission to manage and protect water resources, the Water district offers grants to those entities willing to develop cost-effective, safe and appropriate alternative water supplies. Since the program's inception in 1996, the Alternative Water Supply Grant Program has awarded approximately $77 million to help finance 250 alternative water supply projects throughout the district's 16-county region, resulting in 249 million gallons of alternative water created a day.

By building and operating alternative water supply projects, communities can reduce vastly their draw on traditional freshwater sources. This means greater availability of fresh water for the environment and other uses, both for today and for the future.

For Palm Beach County, the future is a lot closer.

Kevin McCarty is chairman of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board.