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Central Florida’s Polk County Utilities Pursues Direct Potable Reuse

Date: February 09, 2022

Florida is growing at a record pace, with an estimated 1,000 people moving to the state daily. To meet the growing thirst for potable water, Central Florida is projected to need 760 million gallons per day by the year 2025. Central Florida has benefitted from an excellent source of raw water from the upper Florida Aquifer. However, this lone source will not be able to provide demands beyond the year 2025 without causing environmental harm to surface water bodies such as wetlands, springs, and lakes. To meet the demand for a future sustainable water supply, many Florida utility providers are considering nontraditional water sources, including highly treated wastewater, the lower Floridan aquifer, and stormwater runoff that can be cleaned and used as a source for potable supply. The use of pilot projects to demonstrate innovative treatment methods on non-traditional water sources are popping up throughout Central Florida to identify water supplies that are both economical and sustainable for our current and future customers.

The Pilot

A rendering shows Polk County’s planned Direct Potable Reuse pilot facility.

One of the largest counties in Florida, Polk County Utilities, evaluated water resources in the Northwest Regional Utility Service Area (north Lakeland area) and determined that Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) was a viable option to increase the resilience of water supply capacity in the service area. Next, Polk County Utilities developed a concept for a DPR demonstration system to be constructed on the same property as the newly constructed Cherry Hill Water Production Facility (WPF), which uses traditional groundwater supply. This is the first DPR pilot project in Florida located on a WPF property rather than at the Wastewater Treatment Facility (WWTF), providing a unique opportunity for public outreach and education for the public, elected officials, regulatory agencies, and other utility providers.

Highly treated effluent, or public access reuse water, will be transferred from Polk County’s Northwest Regional WWTF to the project site located next to Cherry Hill WPF. The pilot project will further treat the reclaimed water utilizing a multi-barrier treatment approach that includes processes, in the following order:

  • Enhanced coagulation/flocculation/sedimentation
  • Ozone and biologically active carbon filtration
  • Ultrafiltration
  • Granular activated carbon adsorption
  • Ultraviolet disinfection

This series of processes scrubs the recycled water to remove any remaining trace chemicals, pharmaceutical residue, hormones, bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. The pilot will run at a flow rate of approximately 10 gallons per minute. The project goal is to assess the feasibility of DPR through the advanced treatment of reclaimed water to produce drinking water that meets or exceeds federal and state standards to augment future water supplies.

Construction of the pilot will commence spring 2022 with the 14-month demonstration testing scheduled to begin in July 2022. This $2.5 million alternative water supply project is made possible in part by a funding agreement between the Polk County Board of County Commissioners and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The Challenge

One of the biggest challenges faced by proponents of DPR is how to get the public to accept it as a viable source of drinking water. Even people who trust science and technology in other areas of life are reluctant to accept DPR. What is the aversion to DPR based on? The Director of Polk County Utilities, Tamara Richardson, PE, prefers the phrase “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” commonly known as the “Yuck Factor.” This describes the belief that an intuitive or deep-seated negative response to some thing, idea, or practice should be interpreted as evidence for the intrinsically harmful or evil character of that thing. For example, people have the tendency to reject the idea of recycled water based purely on the psychological connection they make to disgusting, contaminated sewage.

Part of the problem is that consumers are beginning with a distrust in tap water treated from traditional sources before they ever hear about the concept of potable reuse. They have a misconception that all tap water is unsafe because there is nationwide publicity when contaminants like lead are found in certain water systems. Consumers are worried about ingesting impurities in tap water, but they do not understand that bottled water is at risk of the same – if not more – impurities since the bottled water industry is not subject to the same regulations as community water systems.

The solution may be found in the old adage, “knowledge is power.” Utilities have the power to educate their customers on the safety of tap water and appeal to what is important to customers, like preserving the environment and sustainable water supplies for a secure future. Water conservation is a success story in central Florida that can be emulated for the potable reuse information campaign. People began shifting their thoughts about water conservation when the campaign offered a higher purpose, involved school children, and made the connection between worldwide and local issues. Organizations like the WateReuse Association enable utilities large and small to be part of a united voice. Together, with consistent messaging, we can communicate the need for alternative water sources and create a feeling of responsibility rather than repugnance when the public hears that DPR is coming to their community.

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