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Our Town: Palm Beach searching for future water supply

Palm Beach buys its water from the City of West Palm Beach under a 30-year agreement that expires in October 2029.

Where will the town’s water supply come from after that? That’s still years away, but town officials are leaving nothing to chance.

If the town does not strike a new water supply deal with West Palm Beach, then the existing agreement calls for the town to assume ownership of the water distribution system on the island at the end of the 30-year period, Public Works Director Paul Brazil said Friday.

The prospect of owning the supply pipes opens alternatives the town didn’t have 30 years ago; in short, it’s free to shop around for deals with other potential suppliers, Town Manager Kirk Blouin said.

“Our job is to negotiate the best option for the town,” Blouin said. “Our due diligence consists of determining what options are available to us. We took the approach of casting the widest net possible.”

If it doesn’t hammer out a new agreement with West Palm Beach, the town could buy its water from Palm Beach County, Lake Worth, Riviera Beach or a private provider. Another option may be to develop a town-owned water source or a public-private hybrid approach, Brazil said.

If it reaches a deal with any entity other than West Palm Beach, that will require building new infrastructure to move that water into the town. That would take time and money to build, and that is why town officials are off to an early start, Blouin said.

In April 2020, the town hired engineering firm Kimley-Horn & Associates for $316,380 to perform a water feasibility study that is still ongoing.

“We have had preliminary meetings with potential suppliers,” Brazil said. “These conversations are continuing.”

Town officials are meeting next week with South Florida Water Management District representatives to take a closer look at the feasibility of some of the options.

That means identifying supply sources that can meet the town’s long-term expectations for water quantity and quality, Blouin said. It also means arriving at a plan to build any necessary infrastructure. Finally, the plan must be able to meet the requirements of government oversight agencies.

“Once that is achieved, the next step is to look at the cost of each option,” Blouin said. “We are zeroing in. I’m hoping by the end of the year we are in multiple negotiations.”

The town could simply stay with West Palm Beach, without examining other possibilities, but that approach would be unlikely to yield the best deal possible, Blouin said.>>>

“We have a good relationship with them,” he said. “We are not disparaging them. But if you have only one option, what kind of leverage would that be at the negotiating table?”

West Palm Beach’s two main sources for drinking water are Lake Okeechobee and the Grassy Waters Everglades Preserve. The city supplies the town’s water through five pipelines that extend beneath the Intracoastal Waterway. There are two booster stations on the island to help move the water to where it needs to go.

Business and residential customers in town pay West Palm Beach directly for their water. Brazil has suggested the town might opt for a “bulk system” with its next supplier in which it buys the water at a reduced rate then sells it to customers throughout town.

Brazil said the town has completed a hydraulic model of the water system on the island to have a better understanding of the town’s water needs. Peak hourly demand in town is 10,007 gallons of water per minute, while the maximum daily demand is 9.92 million gallons.

The fire flow requirement – the quantity of water that must always be available for fire protection purposes – is another 1,000 gallons per minute, on top of the maximum daily flow, Brazil said.

Palm Beach has about 8,800 permanent residents, according to a 2019 estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau. The town uses a lot of water for its size, much of which is used to keep its lawns, gardens and landscaping lush and green (the town’s Par 3 Golf Course and the privately owned courses on the island have their own irrigation sources).

Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said water is a commodity that is going to become increasingly scarce in South Florida as the population continues to grow.

“Renewing our water source is going to be one of the most critical decisions that we make,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that we won’t go with West Palm Beach. What it does mean is we need to look at it very carefully. The objective is to have a reliable, clean water source for the foreseeable future.”