Our Town with William Kelly: Palm Beach narrowing its options for future water supply

William Kelly  |  Our Town  |  September 13, 2022

The town appears to be whittling away at its alternatives for a future drinking water source after its agreement with West Palm Beach expires in 2029.

Town Council members seemed to agree Tuesday that four options have moved to the top of the list. These include:

Signing a new agreement with West Palm Beach while partnering with that city to develop a state-of-the-art membrane filtration treatment facility for a cleaner and safer water supply. Town Manager Kirk Blouin said the town has begun informal talks with city officials who he said appear open to exploring the membrane treatment option.

Second option: buying membrane-filtered water from the City of Lake Worth Beach and replacing Palm Beach’s south-to-north main water lines to be able to distribute the water from Lake Worth Beach throughout the town of Palm Beach.

The third option is a variation on the second one. The town would enter an agreement with Lake Worth Beach for membrane treatment but seek to build a main distribution line in the Lake Worth Lagoon, the length of Palm Beach, to distribute the water from Lake Worth Beach throughout the town.

This option would enable the town to avoid open trenching from one end of the town to the other to install a new main distribution line on the backbone of the island, something officials acknowledge would be highly disruptive. But the downside would be permitting difficulties – there is no guarantee that the town could obtain the necessary permit or permits – and the enormous cost of building the submerged water line, according to Public Works Director Paul Brazil. The line is estimated to cost $100 million to $110 million to construct.

The fourth option is to simply “do nothing,” Brazil said, meaning the town would seek a status-quo retail water supply agreement with West Palm Beach after the existing 30-year agreement expires in 2029. There appeared to be little interest in this approach because of the absence of membrane treatment. This option would, however, be the lowest cost approach available, according to town consultant Kimley-Horn.

The town has been studying alternatives to develop a drinking water supply that is reliable and safe.

The City of West Palm Beach draws most of its water from surface water supplies that include Lake Okeechobee and Grassy Waters Preserve. The water is then treated at the city plant on Banyan Boulevard using traditional methods that do not include membrane filtration. It is piped into the town of Palm Beach through five subaqueous crossings beneath the Lake Worth Lagoon.

The City of West Palm Beach provides water to more than 100,000 customers in West Palm Beach, Palm Beach and South Palm Beach.

Concerns about the quality or safety of the city’s supply were heightened in the spring and summer of 2021 after cylindrospermopsin – a cyanotoxin produced by freshwater bacteria – temporarily contaminated its water supply, requiring a public health advisory. The city has said it has since taken steps to enhance treatment methods at the plant and that the water is safe.

Town officials are looking to settle on a plan that is feasible, can be permitted, and that is not too costly.

“When I turn on that tap, I want to have safe drinking water,” Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said. “But there’s a lot of complicated issues that go behind that.”

Lindsay, who chairs the council’s Public Works Committee, said it asked town staff and consultant Kimley-Horn and Associates to study several alternatives over the last four months.

One plan would be to buy a three-to-five acre tract of land on the west side of the Lake Worth Lagoon to build a town-owned treatment plant. The water would be drawn through “horizontal wells” and treated with membrane filtration.

The wells alone would cost an estimated $55 million to construct, Lindsay said. The town would have to spend millions of dollars more to buy the land and build the treatment plant and new water distribution lines.

It would be a novel approach. The use of horizontal wells for development of a water supply has not been before in this area, Lindsay said.

Other options that have been considered, but weren’t part of Tuesday’s discussion, include the town building a membrane filtration plant on town-owned property on Quadrille Boulevard in West Palm Beach. Under this plan, the town would buy treated water from the city and then treat it again at its plant before piping it onto Palm Beach for distribution.

This plan would require new water lines to be built to bring the water from the city plant on Banyan Boulevard to the town plant on Quadrille, and new lines to get the water from the town plant onto the town. Overall cost estimates are $269 million to $405, according to Kimley-Horn.

Another option previously looked at but not discussed Tuesday would be to build a town-owned desalination treatment plant at Phipps Ocean Park with 11 wells to tap water from the Atlantic Ocean. Two more wells, known as injection wells, would be needed to dispose of waste from the process.

This would require construction of 12 miles of new north-to-south main lines to distribute the water throughout the island. It also would mean substantial loss of green space at Phipps Ocean Park. The total cost is estimated at $352 million to $529 million, according to Kimley-Horn.

The council plans to hold a public workshop this fall to educate the public and get residents’ feedback on the water options. It also referred the subject to its Finance Committee to get a preliminary sense of the cost of bonding the projects still being considered.

There are also state and federal grants available to assist in the cost of renovating municipal water systems, and the town is exploring this opportunity, Brazil said.

Aging water lines

In a related issue, Lindsay said the 75 miles of water distribution lines located within Palm Beach are aging and need to be replaced at a quicker pace. The lines are owned by West Palm Beach. As part of the current agreement with West Palm Beach, reached in 1999, the city spent $16 million from a fund set aside to replace the aging lines on the island from 1999 to about 2009.

After the fund was depleted, the city continued replacing the lines at a much slower pace, collecting about $1 million annually. Lindsay said that figure needs to be tripled to about $3 million a year to establish a more proactive approach to replace the aging lines.

One-third of the water lines in Palm Beach will be 70 years old or older as of 2029, according to Kimley-Horn.

 

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