The Town Council is zeroing in on two alternatives for a future water supply after its existing agreement with West Palm Beach expires in 2029.
One is to remain with West Palm Beach, provided the city would update its water treatment plant to a more technologically advanced, high-pressure membrane filtration system. Membrane filtration is far more effective than traditional treatment methods at removing contaminants from the water, experts say.
The other option is to begin buying water from Lake Worth Beach, which would have to expand its membrane filtration capability so it could accommodate Palm Beach.
In either case, Palm Beach would share in the cost of the treatment upgrade, which is estimated by town engineering consultant Kimley-Horn & Associates to reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Town Council members have said they want a water supply that is safer and more secure than the existing water that comes from West Palm Beach. The city relies on surface water drawn from Lake Okeechobee and Grassy Waters Preserve, then treated at its water treatment plant on Banyan Boulevard. The plant relies on traditional lime-softening, ultraviolet and chlorination disinfection methods.
Surface water that is not filtered through membranes is vulnerable to blue-green algae contamination. Membrane filtration would enable West Palm Beach to avoid a repeat of the blue-green algae outbreak that temporarily contaminated its treated water in the spring of 2021.
Mayor Danielle Moore and the council members are also concerned about “emerging contaminants” – plastic components, fragrances, flame retardants, pesticides and other pollutants that are increasingly finding their way into drinking water sources throughout the nation.
Membrane filtration is the most effective technology available for removing those contaminants, John Potts, senior utilities engineer with Kimley-Horn, has told the town.
Striking a new supply agreement with West Palm Beach after 2029 would yield one major advantage for Palm Beach: the pipes that carry the treated water from the city into Palm Beach already exist. The water arrives in Palm Beach via five pipe crossings beneath the Lake Worth Lagoon. The main distribution lines that bring the water to customers on the island are already in place.
If the town were to switch to Lake Worth Beach as its water supplier, the town would have to install a new south-to-north main distribution line, along South Ocean Boulevard, to carry the water the entire length of the town. The project would be highly disruptive to residents and traffic, and would take “a few years” to complete, Public Works Director Paul Brazil said.
Town Councilman Lew Crampton put it another way: “This will be [like utility] undergrounding on steroids.”
In November, the council dropped the idea of building a south-to-north main distribution pipeline beneath the Intracoastal Waterway to bring in the water from Lake Worth Beach. The underwater line would have enabled the town to avoid the disruption associated with tearing up South Ocean Boulevard to bury a new main distribution pipeline the length of the island.
But after hearing from staff and Kimley-Horn & Associates, council members concluded there were too many logistical hurdles, permitting challenges, land lease and easement issues, and other uncertainties associated with such an untested approach.
“If this breaks in a north-south [direction], it’s over,” Potts said. “We can’t immediately get down in there [in the saltwater and mud] and seal it off.”
Council drops notion of town-owned plant
At its Dec. 13 meeting, the council also decided not to pursue further study of another idea – that of the town constructing its own desalination plant on town-owned property, across State Road A1A from Phipps Ocean Park, beside the Lake Worth Lagoon.
The plant would have to be constructed on a narrow strip of land in the flood zone, said Jason Lee, project engineer for Kimley-Horn. It would need to be nearly 300 feet long, 55 feet wide, and two stories (25 feet) tall.
“The grade would have to be raised, we assume, around 5 feet to deal with the flood zone,” Lee said. “It’s a very low area.”
Construction of a town-owned and operated plant at the site would also involve mangrove mitigation, environmental permits, and construction of 1,200 feet of seawall to protect the plant from flooding associated with storms or rising sea levels, Lee said.
On top of that, the road that provides ingress and egress to Ibis Isle would have to run through the property of the treatment facility.
The town would still have to install a main distribution line along South Ocean Boulevard to carry the water from the plant into the rest of the town.
Kimley-Horn estimated the overall project cost at $375 Million to $562 million.
Councilwoman Julie Araskog was the first to suggest dropping the idea without further consideration and focusing on more realistic solutions. “I don’t think we would ever approve this,” she said.
The council unanimously voted in support of Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay’s motion to discard the idea. “A 513-foot-long building is just not going to fly,” she said.
Moore suggested the focus should be on working with West Palm Beach to upgrade its facilities.
“Our goal is to have safe and secure water,” she said. “What we want is for WPB to build that [membrane] plant. That’s our goal … We all want the same thing. That is every government’s goal. West Palm Beach wants the same thing.”
Town Council President Margaret Zeidman said Palm Beach is required to notify West Palm Beach in writing of its intention by 2027. But the town has the option to renew it with the city for intervals of five years while pursuing a more permanent solution.
That may become necessary. Lee said Kimley-Horn estimates West Palm Beach’s plant upgrade – should it decide to do that – would not be completed before 2034. That is five years later than previous estimates, because it assumes the plant would use reverse osmosis treatment technology so the city could draw water from the brackish deep Floridan aquifer, which Lee said the city has indicated it wishes to do.
Kimley-Horn estimates the West Palm Beach treatment plant upgrade would range from $773 million to $1.16 billion. The upgraded plant would have a capacity of 48 million gallons daily. Palm Beach would require 10 million gallons daily, or 20 percent of the plant’s capacity, which would represent $154 million to $232 million of the cost.
Lake Worth Beach has estimated it could upgrade its treatment facilities to supply Palm Beach with membrane treated water as early as 2029, Lee said. But he said that schedule assumes an immediate start on the project.
Going with Lake Worth Beach is estimated by Kimley-Horn to cost $310 million to $465 million.
Aged internal water lines
Palm Beach’s water woes go even deeper. Buried beneath the island is a sprawling network of internal water distribution lines. These lines are owned by West Palm Beach but ownership could transfer to the town in 2029, depending on what type of future agreement emerges. Some of these existing pipes are nearly 70 years old. West Palm Beach has an ongoing program to replace these lines (funded through its existing retail water sales to customers in Palm Beach) but it is underfunded and is not moving rapidly enough, according to Palm Beach’s Public Works Department. The program needs to be accelerated from the current $1 million a year to around $3 million annually, the Public Works Department has said.
The total cost of replacing those lines is estimated at $47 million to $70 million, according to Kimley-Horn.
By far the least expensive option available to Palm Beach would be to abandon the notion of upgrading to membrane filtration treatment and to continue to buy traditionally treated water from West Palm Beach after 2029. But the council members and Moore have made it clear that that approach – labeled the “do nothing” option – is not even on the table.
“Whatever we do, the treatment has to be membrane-based,” Lindsay has said.