After three years of frustration with discolored water Port St. Joe city commissioners debated last week whether to undertake another pilot study in attempt to isolate a cause and a fix.

After three years of frustration with discolored water Port St. Joe city commissioners debated last week whether to undertake another pilot study in attempt to isolate a cause and a fix.

Though commissioners ultimately tabled until next month formal consideration of the proposal from CDM, designer of the city’s three-year-old $21 million surface water treatment plant, they did so only after debating the merits of undertaking a $60,000 35-week study.

“We want to solve this in the worst possible way,” said David Kozan of CDM. “We want to fix this. We can get there and we are confident that we will.

“We are going to develop a methodology to find the source of the red water and then rectify that source. This is something that has to be done very carefully (so as not to compromise the safety of the water).”

The study, in short strokes, would entail building a GIS map of the water distribution system and collecting samples from areas where red or discolored water has been a chronic problem.

Sampling would involve collections from each point along the route from water plant to home or business, following main and lateral pipes and collecting samples throughout the system.

“That will help us isolate positively the source of the red water,” Kozan said. “We have little data to work with at this point. We need to confirm that (source) so we are not overlooking other problems.”

The two paths Kozan said the study would likely provide for a fix would be either to modify the corrosion control agent used in treatment, along with the pH of the water; and two, possibly adding a new chemical to the water during treatment.

Mayor Mel Magidson wondered if the source of the problem wasn’t already known – iron and corrosion in aging pipes, some in the ground as long as 70 years, that is being loosened by a corrosion inhibitor used to treat the surface water.

“I thought two years ago we concluded it was iron in the pipes,” Magidson said. “Does anyone not believe it is iron in the pipes?”

Kozan replied that the idea of the profile of the water distribution system was “to get to where and why this is happening so we are systematically shooting at the right target.”

He agreed that iron in the pipes was logically the primary problem, but that the focus of the pilot study was to definitively rule out other problems.

One of the issues plaguing isolating the problem is discolored water coming from newer PVC pipes. Another is there are blocks on which the problems with discolored waters are not consistent – one house may have issues while down the street another resident has seen no discoloration of water.

“We want to make sure we aren’t missing something else,” Kozan said.

Once samples are being collected, a testing pipe loop will be set up at Virginia Tech University, which Kozan said had the equipment and expertise for such work, to test various changes in chemical treatments of the water in attempt to craft a solution to the problem.

“We think it is important to set up the pilot test outside of the distribution system and Virginia Tech has the equipment and expertise,” Kozan said.

Commissioner Phil McCroan asked a question that has been in the air for three years – didn’t anyone know what kind of aging lines were in the ground when the plant was designed, with a new, more caustic source of water and new treatment protocols.

The answer was that while the original designers knew there was a potential, a pilot study on water quality conducted prior to the plant coming online indicated problems could be addressed.

“The chemical composition of the water is causing the problem,” Commissioner Rex Buzzett asked Kozan.

Kozan answered, “That is the supposition.”

Given that, Buzzett asked, was the study even necessary?

“Nobody denies we have a problem,” Buzzett said. “We have been dealing with it for three years, but this seems to be bringing us back to the same place.

“Do we need to do this or not?”

The city is already spending millions to replace some 20 miles of aging pipes, the first phase of the replacement should be completed in the spring with the second phase following late next year. To date, more than 60 percent of the eight miles to be replaced in phase one has been replaced.

Kozan emphasized that the pilot study testing would be done outside of areas where pipe has been replaced.

“We don’t want to recommend a fix that might exacerbate the problem,” said Philip Jones with Preble Rish, the city’s engineers of record.

The best case scenario would be that the study results in a cheaper method for addressing alkalinity and phosphates in the water, the treatment of which is central to the issues of water discoloration from rust in pipes breaking loose.

The city could find the funds for the study with a vote by the Northwest Florida Water Management District on Friday.

The NWFWMD board is to take up a request for at least $65,000 in funds to rehabilitate the Chipola Pump Station that helps push the surface water to the city. The city has budgeted for those improvements, city manager Jim Anderson said, and if the NWFWMD – which had approached CDM about fixing the water quality issues in Port St. Joe – approves the city’s request the funds for the study would be available.

“This is our effort to leave no rocks unturned in trying to figure out how to improve the water quality,” Anderson said.