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Broward cities test ways to recycle sewage into usable -- even drinkable -- water

Sun-Sentinel - 3/5/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Jennifer Gollan

Broward's growing population has some utility experts looking to an unorthodox source for drinking water: recycled sewage.

In the coming months, Sunrise and Plantation will become the first Broward County cities to test new equipment designed to recycle wastewater for irrigation and other purposes. If successful, the programs may provide a steppingstone to transform wastewater into drinking water, said Jose Lopez, lead project manager for the South Florida Water Management District's Broward Service Center.

"This is a way to make sure when the population grows that you are providing the service people will require," he said.

Local officials warn the danger of neglecting Broward's water issue is clear: In Sunrise, for example, population growth may mean that in five to eight years, the city will have reached its limit on the amount of water it is permitted to withdraw each year from the Biscayne aquifer, the underground reservoir that provides most of South Florida's drinking water, city officials said.

South Florida water managers recently imposed a cap on water consumption and a requirement that water be used more than once.

Sunrise, which provides water to 215,000 customers in Weston, Southwest Ranches, western portions of Davie and some parts of unincorporated Broward, will experiment by treating wastewater using a membrane bioreactor, which consists of a special filter and disinfectants. The program could ultimately deposit the wastewater about 6 feet underground, where it would percolate 194 feet deeper to the Biscayne aquifer.

"I do understand that the idea of reusing wastewater is a bit of a shock," said Stephen Webster, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. "If we don't deal with it, we may have to introduce mandated restrictions on water. There is a great need for this resource and we need to be proactive in exploring opportunities to reuse the water that we use in the first place."

The pilot program, approved by Sunrise commissioners Jan. 23, will cost about $369,000, of which the South Florida Water Management District will contribute $135,000. City officials will set up the experiment over the next month before starting a six-month test.

Sunrise will lease its equipment from a business unit of General Electric Co. The membrane bioreactor is designed to remove at least 99.99 percent of all bacteria, and 99 percent of pathogens, said Jennifer Watt, of GE Water and Process Technologies.

Plantation plans to try to rid both treated and raw sewage of contaminants using a different, strainer-like technology and ultraviolet light. Ultimately, the water could be discharged into canals, with most of it eventually ending up in the Biscayne aquifer. The city is splitting the $600,000 cost with the water management district.

In both cases, the water from the aquifer would be treated once again before being used for drinking water.

Both programs will likely determine the optimal method to reuse wastewater and whether it will be affordable on a large scale. In addition, water experts hope to pinpoint the ideal way to bring wastewater up to drinking water standards -- whereby at least 99 percent of pollutants are removed.

"It will recharge the Biscayne aquifer without having to draw on the regional system, including the Everglades," Lopez said.

The equipment in Sunrise's pilot program is well-suited to urban areas because it requires less space than traditional treatment facilities, said Hector Castro, director of the Sunrise Utilities Department.

But transforming the pilot programs into full-fledged plants may mean higher water bills. Construction costs could reach $100 million in Sunrise, and $10 million in Plantation.

Adding immediacy to the efforts are rules imposed by the water district. The first, approved in April 2006, requires utilities to reuse wastewater more than once. The second was imposed on Feb. 15, when the water district voted to limit utilities' annual water supply from the Everglades and Loxahatchee River basin.

Some environmentalists hailed the wastewater tests as a way to boost water quantity without risking quality.

"It's a huge step," said George Cavros, conservation chairman of the Broward County Sierra Club. "If other Broward utilities follow suit, we will be taking a huge step in solving Broward's water reuse issue."

But some consumers expressed concern about the safety and palatability of recycled wastewater.

"I would not want to use that water, and I certainly wouldn't want my children drinking it," said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida, a Tallahassee water quality advocacy group. "When you start treating sewage and reusing it for drinking water purposes, extreme caution needs to be used."