"Imagine a day without water"
A discomforting thought for sure, but the real thrust of this question is not simply meant to consider a day of water inconvenience, but rather bring into context how West Palm Beach Public Utilities and its public water system makes it possible to sustain this privileged relationship, while perhaps providing a glimpse into the essence of our source water supply elements.
We Americans have a privileged relationship with clean fresh water. The simplest act of merely turning or opening a tap serves us with ample, uninterrupted, on-demand portions of it, in a style unmatched in most the world.
We all take our taps for granted, while across the globe, more than 1.1 billion people -- 1 in every 6 -- live daily without access to clean water nor have access to the quality of water once available to the citizens of Rome over 2,000 years ago.
The burden of thirst is ever present to nearly half the world inhabitants with 46% of the people on Earth not having piped water to their homes, places where women walk an average of 3.7 miles daily to get water. For most of us, the act of acquiring our daily water needs goes without much thought of its source or the means by which it is delivered safe and pure to our households or businesses, day after day. It is done with such reliability that it barely enters our minds that it, WATER, the most vital substance to not only humans, but all living things, could one day not be at our beck and call. That one day our taps would not deliver the familiar flow nor even a drip to quench our thirst.
Watershed Management & Grassy Waters Preserve
To begin this water story, in reality, the faucet or tap is only its final step.
To really begin, we need to go back to our water source located nearly five miles inland from the City's urban core. Here we find an authentic Everglades remnant wetland artifact; known as Grassy Waters. Occupying greater than 47% of the City's land area, this 24 square mile marsh, serves as both our primary surface water element & rainfall catchment area, as well as preserving a critical ecological refuge. It has been a part of the City since 1894 and thus is part of our heritage.
Fundamentally speaking, it is part of the overall City's water supply infrastructure, but it is unlike any other water supply system in America. It's uniqueness is derived by its preserved natural character, while it also provisions our City's primary source water supply in consort.
Yearly it captures anywhere from 60" to 80" of rainfall amounts, depending on the whims of El Niño or La Niña, converting its spatial area into storage at the rate of 17,400,000 gallons per inch of rainfall for everyone of its square mile area.
This freshwater is vital to not only human life & economic well-being of the City's community at large, but also must be managed for long-term support of the wetland water supply system itself.
Balancing human water use without compromising the integrity of the Grassy Waters ecosystem, is the responsibility of the Utility and orchestrated through the efforts of the Watershed Management Division and distilled & promoted to the public from the Grassy Waters Preserve Nature Center.
The duties of protecting the health of the public water system, in order to respond appropriately to present, new, or emerging issues that are important to the drinking water community, is a collaborative effort of the Utilities Watershed Management Division and the Utilities Water Quality Lab located at the City's Water Treatment Plant. Combined, these two entities bring a measure of cross-disciplines that enhance the ongoing Adaptive Management Measures that will become more critical with the prospects of climate change posing an added threat to the quantity & quality of our source water supplies. No water supply element will be immune to its effects.
Water will be the visible face of climate; therefore climate change. Future terms are leading the Utility to develop much larger long-term strategies to boost all forms of storage and the overall water supply every-time it rains, enlarging its focus toward Total Water Solutions for meeting future needs.
In the final analysis, water is largely secure in West Palm Beach, but the story still remains to be completely told.
Customer Service is the first point of contact for the City of West Palm Beach Utility customers. It is divided into three groups: Customer Service/Utility Billing, Customer Service /Field Customer Service and Central Operations/Dispatch. Customer Service is accountable for residential and commercial water and sewer accounts for the City of West Palm Beach, Town of Palm Beach and the Town of South Palm Beach.
Customer Service/Utility Billing's main function involves interacting with internal and external customer’s city wide as well as other municipalities in person, in writing and via telephone. They also process monthly utility bills, receives and reconciles billing and service related complaints, process credits, back billings, refunds and other adjustments to customer bills. Additionally, Customer Service is responsible for the preparation and collection of utility bills, managing delinquent and liened accounts, and updates/maintains the computer mainframe of billing rate codes and customer information.
Customer Service/Field Customer Service provides services such as: meter reading, meter service repairs, turn on / turn off’s, low pressure investigations, and meter testing to ensure the accuracy of water service. This section of Customer Service also implements the City’s Backflow and Cross Connection Control Program. This programs main purpose is to protect the City’s drinking water supply from contaminants being back-siphoned or back-pressured into our water distribution system.
Central Operations/Dispatch provides twenty four hour emergency response services to all departments within the City except for fire and police. Water main breaks, leaks in the main, sewer spills and flooding are some of the emergency cases that Central Operations responds to. In addition, Central Operations also provides non-emergency response to the citizens of West Palm Beach via the Mayor’s Hotline. This hotline is designed to allow residents of the City of West Palm Beach to voice their concerns, suggestions, and compliments to the City.
Sewer collection maintains 310.6 miles of gravity main, 7,361 manholes, 103 miles of force main and 920 ARV's. This system is built to deliver waste water to the ECR. The collection department maintains this collection system through preventive maintenance with vac truck that do periodical clean of the system. The system is manage by condition assessment CCTV'ing, smoke testing, flow metering,manhole inspections,sonar testing of force main pipe, ARV maintenance program and dye testing. Any defects are repaired by the construction crews.
In times past, nature had always taken care of us. The natural environment allowed each of us to maintain our daily routines while giving little thought to the disposal of waste that we created or generated. Nature’s job of taking care of waste (ultimately by filtering over time) is a duty that will forever be required and done. However, as time progressed, our natural environment encountered challenges in performing the duties associated with waste disposal, thus this is one of the areas where the City of West Palm Beach steps in to help.
The East Central Regional Water Reclamation Facility (ECRWRF) aids the natural environment in human generated waste disposal. The process, while being a predominantly natural process itself, is quite detailed and expansive. However, the basic theory is simple. Wastewater is piped to the ECRWRF through miles of piping and lift stations. This influent is then treated. Wastewater treatment incorporates a biological process that uses screening, grit removal, aeration, sedimentation, solids removal, and disinfection. The disinfected effluent is sent back to the environment and beneficially used to aid the neighboring power plant (West County Energy Center, WCEC). The solids removed from the process are ultimately made safe to apply back to the environment as fertilizer.
The ECRWRF treats an average of 44 million gallons of wastewater per day. 22 million gallons of the treated effluent is injected wells that extend more than a half a mile deep into the earth. The other 22 million gallons of treated effluent are piped to WCEC for cooling water. ECRWRF produces about 215 tons of biosolids per day that are sent to a pelletizer and converted to fertilizer.
Still today, many people are not sure as to what happens to the water that flushes down the toilet or goes down the drain. Today, nature continues to take care of us all and the ECRWRF strives to help nature accomplish this work. Also, just as in the past, we did not have to burden ourselves with worrying about the disposal of the waste we generated; the ECRWRF allows us to carry on with our daily lives with little thought about disposing of the waste we create.
Stormwater Drainage & Canal Maintenance
The Stormwater Drainage Division is responsible for the conveyance of the stormwater runoff to be effectively and safely to be removed from our streets and parkways. There are 5700 inlets, 3100 manholes and 160 miles of pipe that has to be cleaned and inspected annually. Our crews are on call 24hrs a day and 7 days a week.
The Canal system is another mechanism for effective conveyance. Our division has to mow, remove debris and excess vegetation on a monthly or as needed basis. We have to exercise our storm gates monthly to ensure that if flooding occurs our gates would be functioning properly.
We have an Environmental Compliance Specialist that monitors illegal / illicit dumping activities and educates our business owners and residents the consequences that could impact our storm system and waterways.
Water Treatment is a 24 hour, 365 day a year job. It takes dedicated, responsible and Licensed Operators on the job all of that time. The City of West Palm Beach treats surface water rather than well water used by most utilities in Southern Florida. Surface water requires a significantly higher level of treatment than ground or well water. There is a significant cost to treatment. For example a new treatment process being built at the water plant is a 25 millions dollar high tech process using Ultraviolet light for an additional protective level of disinfection. The treatment plant has a rating of 47 Million Gallons Per Day (MGD). The plant usually treats between 26 and 34 MGD.
The City has the treatment plant and there is a 5 MGD storage and a 3 MGD storage tank at the plant. There are also 6 additional storage tanks with a combined storage capacity of 12 Million Gallons with booster pumps, and 2 booster stations to increase pressure in the system so that there is always plenty of water for daily use and for emergencies like firefighting. Most of the facilities are run remotely from a Control Room at the Treatment Plant using a computerized Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. Having a system like this saves many man hours going to the remote sites and thus reduces the number of people required, but also means the people that control and repair the systems need many more skills to make it work properly.
There are many miles of pipe and many fire hydrants throughout the City to bring the water to all of our citizens and businesses and provide fire protection too. Older pipelines require replacement and if not replaced become more susceptible to breaks as they age. There are many breaks throughout the City service areas that require quick response and repair at all hours of the day and night. The repairs are made carefully to insure that the water stays safe for use after being fixed. There are many crews of people with a variety of skills and experience. Fixing and repairing pumps, motors, pipelines and delicate instrumentation are some of the skills needed by maintenance people to make sure the Operators have a functioning plant to produce the treated water.
After saying all of the information above, remember what it is like after a hurricane, to be without water to shower, wash clothes, brush your teeth, flush the toilet, and just have a good drink to stay hydrated. That is a day or more without water and I do not believe many of us would like to return to a time without these needed conveniences, now considered necessities.
2016 Water Quality Report