Wastewater Treatment is City’s Top Priority

How a typical metropolitan treatment system works.

How a typical metropolitan treatment system works.

Fruitland Park commissioners ranked the city’s ailing wastewater treatment facilities their number one priority at Saturday’s Capital Improvements workshop session.

Commissioners plan to take up the issue at Thursday evening’s regular meeting starting at 7 p.m.

John Gunter, the commission‘s longest-serving member, raised the issue first. City Manager Gary La Venia said he strongly agreed.

“I think wastewater treatment is our top priority for future development,” La Venia told commissioners. “Our wastewater treatment plant is the most inefficient one I have ever seen.”

Community Development Director Charlie Rector and Public Works Director Dale Bogle raised red flags last month when they asked for money to hire technicians to survey the city’s system.

The three-page, $750 report is damning:

“We are permitted to process 100,000 gallons [of effluent] daily,” Rector summarized, “we’re only going to be able to maximize about 75,000 gallons a day because of sludge that continuously builds up in the aerator pond,” he explained.

La Venia said the city’s facility currently processes less than 50,000 gallons per day.

Two blowers that spray the effluent run continuously, Rector explained.

“They don’t have to run all the time but we have no way of knowing how to regulate them because there is no metered or visual way to see what flows into the pond,” he said.

Rector said technicians obtained the system’s original design plans from the contractor who built the plant. Those plans may be faulty.

“In the design plans, there is no screen to intercept rags and other things that aren’t supposed to be there,” Rector said. Those solids plug lines and accumulate as sludge.

Rector asked Boesch Engineering for recommendations.

The ultimate solution is to build a new wastewater processing facility with a capacity of 500,000 gallons to 750,000 gallons of effluent daily. That would likely accommodate the city’s needs for the next 15-20 years, depending on growth.

That would cost an estimated $9 million to $11 million.

A smaller facility—250,000 gallons a day—could supplement the current system at less cost.

“That’s a band-aid that would solve the problem for five to seven years,” Rector said.

The third option is a pumping station to send city effluent to Leesburg or Lady Lake. Both municipalities have wastewater systems that can easily handle additional capacity.

Lady Lake’s wastewater facilities can process one million gallons a day and Rector said Lady Lake officials are anxious to accept Fruitland Park’s effluent.

“It would improve their efficiency, it would add to their water recycling capacity and it would give us time to design a proper facility without building more capacity than we will need,” Rector told commissioners.

Rector said a pumping station and 1.7-mile pipeline to Lady Lake will cost approximately $775,000. Pumping effluent to Leesburg’s wastewater facilities would cost about $1.1 million.

Commissioners decided to pursue option three. It’s also a band-aid, but an important one.

Ten years ago, when the real estate boom was in full swing and city growth projections were running off the charts, Minneola, Groveland and Mount Dora borrowed money to build high-capacity wastewater treatment systems they thought they would need to serve the hundreds of new homes and businesses everyone anticipated.

Sewer impact fees paid by home builders—and ultimately home buyers—would pay for the systems eventually, the cities figured.

When real estate values crashed, all three cities were hurting.

Here’s a sample of Orlando Sentinel columnist Lauren Ritchie’s 2011 take on Minneola:

Minneola had a budget of roughly $10 million when Mayor Pat Kelley took office in 2009. Today, it’s about $8 million, or 20 percent less. For the upcoming year, the city is expecting to take in only about $7 million, and the mayor is determined not to use reserves to balance the budget. Throw in the fact that the account from which Minneola has been paying for the unneeded and little-used $20 million sewage plant has run dry.

City Council members were so anxious for growth that they rushed to build the plant, ignoring questions about whether it really was needed. They were expecting a flood of new houses to pay for it; instead, they got a growth drought.

Now, city residents who neither wanted nor needed a sewage plant will be stuck paying for it, and they’ll be sacrificing things they do want in an effort to keep the city solvent.

It’s a lesson Fruitland Park commissioners and key city staffers repeat to each other constantly. No one doubts The Villages will hit its growth targets. And city officials are hustling to stay ahead of growth that’s anticipated outside the Villages.

But no one wants to get too far out in front of the curve.

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