Entrance to Thrill Hill Mine, site of future reservoir

Major Water Utility Projects Weigh Down Mount Dora Budget

August 28, 2015

Life in Florida would be too challenging for most without juice. Air conditioning, lights, TV, devices — all powered up with the flick of a switch. Water is also effortless; turn on the tap, and it’s there, pouring out (hopefully) clear as day. And working in reverse, flush a toilet, trouble’s gone.

But let the power go out — as many here in Mount Dora experienced in a recent lightning storm — or a water main breaks, as it did on Lincoln Avenue last summer — and the simplest of routines becomes a chore. It’s easy to have sympathy for Mount Dora’s earliest residents when there’s no power or water.

Much effort goes into making such conveniences effortless for Mount Dora residents. Much cost, too, and that cost continues to rise.

In an upcoming budget workshop on September 10, city manager Vincent Pastue plans to update council on where things stand with three significant public works budget items: utilities relocation to accommodate the widening of three stretches of US-441 and SR-44; bio-solid treatment expansion; and continued work on the water reclamation project in the old Thrill Hill mine.

“We’re going to make sure everyone’s on the same page,” Pastue said. “While these items are in the proposed budget, as a city manager I did not feel there was a good understanding of the projects. These are big-ticket items, and the City Council needs to understand them in greater detail and determine whether to proceed further.”

2016 projected expenditures of more than $8 million for those line items accounts for a fifth of the city’s proposed $45.7 million 2016 budget. Over next five years, the dent will be $30 million.

Current water and wastewater utility rates are already insufficient to fund these operating and future capital needs, so discussion at the meeting will round back to the question of rates. Rate increases have adjusted annually for rises in the consumer price index — about 2% a year — but Mount Dora will have to borrow more to cover these projects, raise utilities rates or defer some to a later date. (According to John Peters, pubic works and utilities director, the city’s current utilities rate structure is about 8 percent below the average of 28 nearby municipalities.)

As all of Central Florida grows, demand on its principle water source, the underground Florid aquifer, is overtaxing supply. Currently the region draws about 800 million gallons of water per day from the aquifer, leaving about a 50 million gallon a day surplus. With demand by 2030 expected to exceed 1.1 billion gallons a day, alternate source of water will have to be exploited.

No matter how much rain we got yesterday, water in Florida is finite.

Why doesn’t Mount Dora get its water from the lake? Sorry: The Harris Chain of Lakes couldn’t supply just one of the cities on its shores with all of its water needs.

Mount Dora gets its drinking water from five groundwater wells that draw from the Florida aquifer. Raw water is then treated in a series of steps, first adding polyphosphate for corrosion control. Then the water is pumped into aerators to remove hydrogen sulfide, a naturally occurring compound normally found in Florida waters. The water is treated with chlorine for disinfection and then stored in ground storage tanks before it goes into the water distribution system for use by residents. (About 100 miles of pipe distributes potable water through the city.)

Each year the city’s water is tested from multiple locations for the presence of some 20 regulated contaminants, and the results are provided to all customers. (This year’s report, only one contaminant, lead, had a positive result in any location, and its presence was probably due to corrosion of aged residential plumbing.)

The city’s labyrinthine water utilities are designed to provide consistent water pressure and efficient disposal of waste. (Crammed in there too are pipes for fiber optics, cable TV, and natural gas.) But it’s an old system — much of the pipe is more than 50 years old — and maintenance requires constant effort.

Josh Kramm is the city’s utility line manager. “The environment these pipes are in are always changing. Hydrogen sulfate levels in the ground goes up and down. There are lightning strikes, floods. A tree’s roots can break pipes. We can’t plan on breaks and malfunctions.” When I spoke to him, he was coming off a sixteen-hour day. “Our crew is so dedicated, ” he says. “Any time there’s a problem, they’re right there.”

In the past year and a half, the department has put in pressure nodes — gauges for lift stations — that allow staff to rapidly pinpoint where changes in pressure are occurring. This makes repair efforts much faster. “The other day a contractor hit a water main on Fifth and Franklin Drive,” Kramm says, ” and we dispatched a crew there within minutes.”

Updating all that infrastructure isn’t easy, and it’s very costly to boot. A good example is the city’s downtown recent construction project. Streets had to be cleared away. When they dug down, they found pipe that had been hand-laid just under the surface of sidewalks. “One break anywhere would have meant closing down the entire downtown,” Kramm says.

The new system is so much more flexible. “Now if there’s a problem, we can isolate it to just a few businesses.” Water flow from hydrants were phenomenally improved when the city replaced 6 inch with 10 inch ducts. After the utilities were replaced, then everything else had to go back in–streets, curbs, sidewalks, trees. “There are a lot of places in Mount Dora where all that work wouldn’t be practical to do,” he says.

With forty to sixty percent of its total water consumption going to non-potable uses such as irrigation, Florida promotes reuse of reclaimed water and water conservation as major objectives. An additional 60 miles of pipe supplies reused water to Mount Dora residents. Resuse water comes from three sources: wastewater, storm water and excess surface water.

The state mandates that wastewater be kept out of Florida’s streams, rivers and lakes. Treating wastewater serves the twofold purpose of keeping effluent out of these water sources as well as providing a significant source of reuse water.

The process by which wastewater becomes reuse water involves pipes for sewage leading to waste treatment facilities which extract wastewater, which is then converted to one source of reuse water.

Advances in technology enable solid waste — biosolids — once drained of wastewater to then be converted to fertilizer. The end product actually has fewer pollutants than commercial fertilizer. The $300,000 budget line item would allow the city to both meet future regulations for disposal of bio-solids as well as come up with a manner of treatment that would help pay for itself.

Right now the city has storage for about 23 million gallons of reuse water between percolation ponds and its two main plants, but that isn’t enough water to supply the city’s need during the crucial watering period of May 15 to June 15. Plus, new development will only increase this demand.

To help with that, the city purchased Thrill Hill mine, a dirt mine that was going out of business, to use as a 65-million gallon reclaimed water facility. The next step, costing an estimated $600,000, is to get the permitting necessary to make some 460,000 cubic yards of dirt from the mine available to the Department of Transportation for use in nearby projects. While the DOT can’t force contractors it hires to use the dirt, it is hoped that they will buy dirt from Thrill HIill and help reduce some of the costs. The final price tag for the Thrill Hill reservoir is expected to be about $6–1/2 million.

Of all the projects, the most expensive will be the relocation of utilities to allow for three major highway expansion projects — widening of US-441 for the upcoming interchange off extended 429 toll road, another interchange onto SR-44 and an extension of US-441 from the exchange to Lincoln Ave. (When utilities owned by municipalities get in the way of Florida Department of Transportation projects, those municipalities have to pick up the tab for relocation.) Estimates are rough right now since the state DOT has yet to file its formal plan, but the city is looking at spending about $8 million over five years to relocate utilities.

“These projects are very important,” said city manager Pastue. “If I see some puzzled looks at the September 8 meeting, we will need to fully explain them so we’re all on the same page going forward.”

For further analysis of the city’s water projects, see “Water Challenges in a Thirsty State.”

Thrill Hill Mine as it looked in 2010.

— David Cohea (djcohea@gmail.com)

Originally published at www.mountdoracitizen.com on August 28, 2015.