Water utilities raise yellow flags for expansion leverage

Price tag at $12  – $18 million to pipe wastewater to Eglin

 

Two of Santa Rosa’s major wastewater utilities are citing state-regulated effluent treatment limits while lobbying county commissioners to grant expansion plans that face public opposition.

Both Holley-Navarre Water System and South Santa Rosa Utility – the latter owned by the City of Gulf Breeze – are pressing separately for county permits to grow their treated water disposal capacities lest they exceed limits set by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Gulf Breeze officials quietly renewed their push with the county last week, warning that the FDEP recently surprised them with a more immediate deadline to get prepared for increasing customer demands.

The two companies, with a combined base of about 21,000 sewage ratepayers, imply urgency to meet oversight requirements. But an FDEP response to a Navarre Press query minimized the possibility of penalizing Holley-Navarre Water while the agency’s rules appear to give South Santa Rosa Utility plenty of leeway too.

Still, both utilities seek leverage to accomplish controversial agendas under the yellow flag of FDEP intervention that could stop their issue of new residential and commercial hookups without more disposal capacity.

Waste makes haste

“We’re over the line cur¬rently,” James Calkins, vice president of the HNWS board of directors, told the Navarre Press last week. “The good news is that DEP is still working with us.”

Holley-Navarre Water is seeking a county permit to build a $1 million wastewater filtration system on land it owns near the Williams Creek residential neighborhood. Many homeowners object to the project, and county commissioners have scheduled a public meeting and possible decision on the utility’s plan for May 26.

But the FDEP isn’t rushing Holley-Navarre Water, according to spokeswoman Brandy Smith, who acknowledges the utility’s problem: “Their average daily flow already exceeds their constructed reuse capacity on occasion. This is currently periodic so it can be absorbed within the system, but as the average daily flow increases, the system will need the additional reuse capacity to be able to appropriately manage the volume of reclaimed water from the treatment plant.”

Yet Smith reiterated her agency’s cooperative approach. “Proper planning and preparation is necessary to ensure that the Holley-Navarre Water System will be able to meet future demand. The department will continue to work with the Holley-Navarre Water System, Santa Rosa County and other stakeholders to ensure that appropriate measures are taken to plan for future expansion needs and ensure protection of Florida’s natural resources.”

Meanwhile, Santa Rosa’s engineering department is in discussions with Eglin Air Force Base real estate officials about the eventual leasing of 200 remote acres there to which Holley-Navarre’s treated wastewater can be piped and harmlessly spread. Holley-Navarre’s board of directors has budgeted $11 million toward that project, although some of that money could be used for smaller water reuse filtration systems in Santa Rosa County as temporary and back-up sites, said Paul Gardner, general manager of the utility. The Eglin pipeline will take about three years to build, estimated James Calkins, HNWS vice president. If Holley-Navarre Water’s proposed purchase of Navarre Beach Water & Sewer goes through, it is estimated the costs could rise by another $3 million to $6 million to have the pipeline start on the smaller utility’s property and run under Santa Rosa Sound, Gardner calculated. That could raise the total price of the pipeline and accompanying treatment facilities to as much as  $17 million. In addition, the county has estimated that a 20-year lease for the Eglin property would cost about $1 million.

At the same time, Holley-Navarre is pressing for its permit at Williams Creek, where the filtration system could be completed in about eight months. That relatively quick fix would accommodate the utility’s expected customer growth for about five years, Calkins told a reporter.

And despite the professed concerns of some HNWS officials to county commissioners at a recent meeting, Calkins expressed confidence in an interview that the environmental agency “isn’t going to shut us down” on issuing new hookups.

Tiger Point intransigence

The future expansion of South Santa Rosa Utilities’ wastewater capacity has become a test of wills between Gulf Breeze City Council and the Santa Rosa County Commission.

Residents who live near Tiger Point Golf Club, which the city owns along with the utility, have pressed Gulf Breeze leaders to comply with a list of 15 items they agreed to after buying the property in December 2012. But the major sticking point has been the city’s refusal to follow through with its promise to rehab the club’s defunct west course at a cost estimated in the millions of dollars and projected by golf business consultants to be a money loser if it does reopen.

However, the city needs the county’s approval for a conditional- use permit allowing it to expand the existing SSRU wastewater plant located on the golf club property. Otherwise, Gulf Breeze cautions that it’s only alternative will be to build a new plant in another location to satisfy the FDEP’s looming effluent disposal requirements as the utility adds customers. A brand-new plant at a much higher cost would mean raising sewage treatment rates for SSRU’s customers – many of whom are Tiger Point residents.

Gulf Breeze Mayor Matt Dannheisser and City Manager Buz Eddy said they contacted county commissioners last week to convey the FDEP’s recent decision to move forward SSRU’s deadline for additional effluent treatment capacity by three years to Jan. 1, 2020.

“The FDEP decision was unexpected as it was the result of a change in their interpretation of their regulations compared to prior years’ interpretations,” Dannheisser wrote in an emailed response to a Navarre Press query.

Timetable a moving target

He said the agency’s compliance timetable is being shortened partly because of “recent unusual rainfall events” such as the April 2014 deluge that strained the capacity of the area’s sewer systems with stormwater.

“Accordingly, the city now is faced with accelerating its schedule to meet the State requirements,” Dannheisser said.

The new FDEP mandate means that South Santa Rosa Utilities must start designing either an addition to its Tiger Point water treatment plant or a new one on Bergren Road soon. In fact, Dannheisser said Gulf Breeze city officials and the SSRU board need to know by Sept. 1 if the county will grant the permit to use the Tiger Point Golf Club property.

That ultimatum gives both sides less time to blink. The county will be tested on its resolve to make Gulf Breeze and SSRU keep the promise about rehabbing the west golf course. The city will be forced to put up, or not, on an expensive and unpopular infrastructure project.

Some Tiger Point residents say the city may be bluffing. But in any case they intend to lobby county commissioners to hold Gulf Breeze leaders to their promise about the west course. “We haven’t changed our position,” said A.J. Sutton, a Tiger Point homeowners leader. “The Florida Department of Environmental Protection isn’t involved with the golf club. This is about the City of Gulf Breeze keeping its word.”

Read the full article in the May 19 issue of Navarre Press. Click HERE to subscribe online to your community newspaper.

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