Nearly four years to the month since the city of Port St. Joe cut the ribbon on a glistening new $21 million water plant answers to questions about water quality remain largely elusive.
And a preliminary report from the company that designed the plant offers little beyond general suggestions, lacking in specifics on achieving goals and offering no indication of the costs to the city for success.
Utility rates have risen more than 50 percent while the water distribution system has expanded to include nearly all the southern end of the county, from White City and Overstreet to Cape San Blas.
The city has received federal grants and state appropriations, but has still taken on millions of dollars in debt while constructing the new water plant, expanding the distribution system and the ongoing replacement of some 20 miles of aging pipe.
But as they discussed “staying the course” with a locked-in-by-ordinance 5 percent hike in utility rates come October, commissioners expressed frustration with upping the price on what Commissioner William Thursby characterized as a “tainted product.”
Port St. Joe resident Ann White seemed to speak for many when she asked commissioners whether there was “dead end in sight for this water problem.”
“The water was have now is not drinkable,” White said. “We pay a good price for it and then many of us go out and buy bottled water, so we are paying twice.
“Do we have any hope of getting good water any time soon?”
In many ways, the city has been buffeted by outside forces throughout the path to present.
The Northwest Florida Water Management District, seeking to take as many residents in the region off the coastal Floridan Aquifer as possible to prevent saltwater intrusion, partnered with the city with a vision of creating a regional water supplier.
The vision remains within the district offices. The district assisted in the purchase of the freshwater canal that links the Chipola River to the city’s water plant and provides the surface water source.
The vision is that the city may one day serve everywhere from Mexico Beach to Apalachicola.
To use that water, more caustic than deep well water, the city charted relatively new treatment processes, with CDM Smith designing the system and Siemens providing the equipment.
A plant in Dalton, GA is the closest clone in the country to the city’s system, city manager Jim Anderson said.
And from the outset the city has had issues providing clear water from the tap.
Problems with the plant, treatment protocols, maintenance and upkeep of a new system and equipment were compounded by a water distribution system that in parts dated to the Depression.
The combination of the caustic water, old pipes and treating chemicals combined to turn the water red-to-brown in large swaths of the distribution system – one of the headaches throughout has been the randomness of problems.
While the city’s engineers said they noted a “potential” for problems due to old pipes, the extent and intractability of those problems, which scoured washed clothes, rendered water unpalatable, clogged up home water filters among other impacts, seemed to catch all off guard.
The rates the city has been charging for water, as well as ongoing problems of quality, were also spurred from outside City Hall, including a town hall meeting held before a standing-room-only crowd at the Centennial Building.
The Board of County Commissioners, specifically former commissioner Bill Williams, publicly assailed the city for its water and prices and during a pan-frying of Mayor Mel Magidson in one meeting said the city could not justify its rates without a rate study.
That study in turn highlighted that based on the cost of producing a gallon of water combined with the debt the city was taking on with infrastructure, the city was actually charging less than it should to meet its bills.
“It turned out to be a good thing,” Magidson said. “(The rate study) told us what we needed to charge.”
Anderson said, “It is unfortunate that rates are going up but it has been effective (in addressing debt).”
However, the water quality issues that continue to plague the system undercut arguments for maintaining the current rate structure, as commissioners acknowledged.
“Any price increase is hard to swallow,” said Commissioner Phil McCroan.
The anticipated report on pilot testing from CDM, delayed for at least two months before its release two weeks ago, provided little insight into solution.
“They have general suggestions, but no costs or specifics,” Commissioner Rex Buzzett said.
The bulletin from the report is that in addition to iron from various, and in places unidentified, sources there is also manganese present in water coming from the plant.
Manganese, as with iron, can be a source of “dirty” or “dark” water, the report notes.
Manganese was also the critical issue in Dalton after its plant came online, Anderson noted. Once the plant addressed and solved the manganese issue, the water clarity improved dramatically, he said.
The report recommends additional testing to identify treatment solutions for the manganese in finished water – without specifics or costs – as well as to continue the replacement of aging pipes.
The report also noted several issues beyond the system main distribution system – galvanized mains in homes and businesses and seasonal users – and provides suggestions for addressing them, but without costs.
“In summary,” the report details, “the discolored water problem in PSJ is a multi-dimensional problem that requires multiple strategies at the (Surface Water Treatment Plant), distribution system and within the customers’ homes.
Testing will be performed that will result in a recommendation for a change in corrosion control chemical feed and/or process changes to reduce the instances of red water in the distribution system.”
Buzzett has pushed for CDM, in partnership with the city’s engineers, Preble Rish, which has coordinated the plant construction and infrastructure improvements, to provide more concrete information and a path forward.
Buzzett said last week that no one on the commission has been more outspoken or more aggressive in pushing for answers from the various experts – from the state down – the city has relied upon.
The goal is for a full workshop before commissioners in the coming weeks.
He said he would continue to “pound sand” until solutions are found.
“We’re going to get it done,” Buzzett said. “We are going to hold feet to fire.”