Could Palm Beach follow the desalination path charted by Jupiter’s water utility?
During the 1970s, the town of Jupiter was experiencing rapid growth. Its water supplier, investor-owned Tri-Southern Utilities, decided to sell out rather than try to keep pace.
The town bought the franchise in 1978, seizing the opportunity to develop and control its own water supply and delivery system.
Today Jupiter (population 66,000) produces 30 million gallons a day of treated water from wells that tap into two groundwater sources – a “surficial” or shallow aquifer and the deep Floridan Aquifer.
“It came down to controlling our own destiny,” said David Brown, the town’s utilities director. “It was not without risks. But a utility, run right, can be beneficial to the town.”
Palm Beach receives its water from West Palm Beach under an agreement that expires in 2029. The development of a municipally owned groundwater system is one of the future supply options Palm Beach officials have said the town is considering. Other alternatives include buying water from Palm Beach County or continuing to purchase it from West Palm Beach.
Based on information from West Palm Beach, Palm Beach’s average daily water consumption appears to be around 8.2 million gallons. The town’s year-round population is roughly 8,800 people.
West Palm Beach relies on surface water that flows 20 miles from Lake Okeechobee to canals and Grassy Waters Preserve to Lake Mangonia and Clear Lake. The city uses a traditional lime-softening process, with ultraviolet light for additional disinfection, at its water treatment plant.
West Palm Beach’s water system is undergoing scrutiny after tests in May uncovered high levels of toxic cyanobacteria in its treated supply.
Cyanobacteria is naturally found in surface waters. Because Jupiter derives its supply from groundwater, it has not experienced a problem with cyanobacteria, Brown said.
When Jupiter bought its system, its average daily flow was 2.5 million gallons of water per day, serving a population of about 15,000 people.
The town’s only water source was the shallow aquifer it inherited from Tri-Southern (farther south, it is referred to as the Biscayne Aquifer). It is about 150 feet below the surface and is replenished with rainwater. But it’s more susceptible to drought, and more vulnerable to pollution, than a deep-water source, Brown said.
Growth projections in the 1980s showed Jupiter’s daily water demand would rocket upward to 30 million gallons.
“When I got here in 1990, we were in panic mode,” he said. “We were buying water from other utilities until we could get our [current] plant online.”
Commissioned in 1990, the town’s water treatment plant was designed with future water needs in mind. Today it sprawls over a 10-acre site off Indiantown Road. It supplies water to more than 86,000 people living in Jupiter, Juno Beach and unincorporated areas of Palm Beach and Martin counties.
The $80 million facility cleanses water by pressing it through high-pressure membranes considered to be state of the art, Brown said. It works like two plants in one: a nanofiltration treatment system produces finished water from the shallow aquifer, while a higher-energy, more expensive desalination process treats brackish water from the deep Floridan Aquifer – a second water source the town added to accommodate its growth.
The town pulls about 15 million gallons of drinking water daily from each of the two sources which, post-treatment, are blended into one product, he said.
The nationally recognized operation has received more than 40 awards in the last three decades, according to the town utilities website. Jupiter Utilities was awarded the Safe Drinking Water Act Excellence Award by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 1999, 2001 and 2008.
Jupiter decided it needed to develop a second water source after hydrogeological monitoring indicated the shallow aquifer could yield up to 20 million gallons per day – about two-thirds of what it would need.
The town looked at the most cost-effective options. Treating water from the Atlantic Ocean would have been very expensive, Brown said.
The most viable alternative was the Floridan Aquifer, 1,500 feet below the surface, Brown said. That water is about 25 percent as salty as ocean water.
Test wells were dug to check water quality at different source points. There was trial and error. “No one else in southeast Florida had done it on a large scale,” he said. “Every time we drilled a well, it was an adventure. But it worked out over time.”
The new system was eventually permitted by the South Florida Water Management District, which puts a cap on withdrawal volumes. Initially there were four wells. Today there are 11 in the wellfield, with three more in design. Each well costs about $3 million, he said.
“You don’t want to stress the source,” Brown said. “It makes a lot more sense to invest in building a greater number of wells than trying to pump hard on just a few.”
For every four gallons that are pumped into the plant, three gallons of treated water emerge. The fourth gallon becomes wastewater or “byproduct,” Brown said. Its disposal can be difficult. But the town demonstrated to water authorities that the reverse-osmosis byproduct could be treated for release into the Loxahatchee River, he said.
Byproduct from the nanofiltration operation is sold to the Loxahatchee River District, which is the local wastewater utility. The district blends it with their treated wastewater and uses it for irrigation.
Obtaining a permit from the water district for a groundwater supply is always a challenge, Brown said. “But there are a lot of knowledgeable consultants. You put a good team together and you can get there fairly easily.”
Peter Kwiatkowski, hydrologist and section administrator with the South Florida Water Management District, said the majority of utilities in the state draw on groundwater, primarily from the Biscayne Aquifer, because that water has historically been abundant and stable.
The Biscayne underlies parts of Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties for a total of about 4,000 square miles.
But it has become stressed from heavy use, which makes permitting for it more of a challenge, he said. For coastal communities like Palm Beach, its use also presents the risk of saltwater intrusion.
Far fewer utilities – perhaps a dozen in southeast Florida – draw on the Floridan Aquifer, either as an exclusive or secondary water source. The lack of competition makes it easier to permit, Kwiatkowski said.
The much larger Floridan Aquifer is a cavernous, generally interconnected system composed of upper and lower segments. It spans about 100,000 square miles, underlying the entire state and parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. One of the world’s most productive aquifers, it supplies drinking water for about 10 million people.
In Palm Beach’s vicinity, there are two utilities that draw on the Floridan, Kwiatkowski said. Manalapan uses it exclusively, while Lake Worth Beach relies on it as a secondary source.
“It is available to virtually everyone in southeast Florida,” he said. “It’s a prolific aquifer. Whatever the town needs, I’m sure the Floridan Aquifer could supply it.”
To obtain a permit, applicants must demonstrate that there would be no adverse impacts to the environment or to other existing users of the supply, Kwiatkowski said. The criteria are the same for the Biscayne as for the Floridan.
Permitting would take at least three years, he said.
The town would need access to land large enough for a water treatment plant, and for wells and a pipeline. “There are a lot of hurdles that would have to be cleared,” Kwiatkowski said. “No matter what is chosen, there are complexities.”
Last year, Palm Beach’s Town Council hired Kimley-Horn & Associates for $316,380 to do a feasibility study on the town’s future water supply alternatives. Kimley-Horn’s report is due in September, according to Public Works Director Paul Brazil.
In an email responding to questions for this story, Jason Debrincat, senior project engineer in Palm Beach’s Public Works Department, wrote that having direct access to its own water source would be the main advantage of converting to a groundwater system.
Permitting, costs and “available real estate” for a plant would be the major obstacles, he wrote. It is possible, however, that Palm Beach could build a plant on town-owned land in West Palm Beach and pipe the water into Palm Beach, he wrote.
According to its website, Jupiter’s water and stormwater utilities department has 73 employees. Brown said the utility is financially healthy with an asset value of $320 million and $16.4 million in debt.
Water rates are 24 percent below the average in the tri-county area of Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, he said.
Jupiter charges $37.19 per 10,000 gallons, compared to $41.42 per 10,000 gallons for Palm Beach County and $64.00 per 10,000 gallons in West Palm Beach.
There are 3,573 residential and commercial water accounts in Palm Beach, according to West Palm Beach. In 2020, the average monthly use per account in Palm Beach, where year-round irrigation is common, was nearly 69,000 gallons.