In part one, I described where our potable water comes from, how it is used, and some important reasons to conserve. Now, let’s look at an alternative water resource known as reclaimed water.
So, what happens to water once it’s used? Well, wastewater can be recycled to help cut down on the environmental and financial costs of producing and distributing fresh, potable water. Sarasota County reuses around 65-70%* of its wastewater (compared to a state average of 34%) and has a goal of using 75% by 2040. Recycled wastewater, otherwise known as reclaimed water, is a pillar in water conservation, as it allows us to get more use out of a nonrenewable and crucial resource.
Before wastewater can be used as reclaimed water, it is put through a series of treatments. For most of Florida, only secondary treatment is required. In specific southwest Florida counties, tertiary treatment or advanced wastewater treatment (AWT) is required if the water is being discharged to surface waters. AWT is conducted to further filter out contaminants, especially nutrients, from the water. Wastewater treatment in Sarasota County goes through an 8-step process before it is distributed to customers as reclaimed water. Treatment involves the removal of solid waste, bacterial activation, sand filtration and disinfection/chlorination. Even with this extensive treatment, reclaimed water is not recommended for drinking, washing cars, or irrigating home gardens with edible plants (that cannot be cooked or peeled). This is because it is known to contain constituents of concern.
However, reclaimed water is a good source of water for irrigation because it can save millions of gallons of potable water per day through its use on golf courses, agricultural fields, parks, and more. It is also often used in cooling towers. In addition to these beneficial uses, reclaimed water is put into infiltration ponds that recharge groundwater. In most Florida counties, including Sarasota, we create more wastewater than we use beneficially, therefore, some portion of this resource is sent to holding ponds and injected deep (nearly 3000 ft) into the ground in an area of the Floridan aquifer known as the boulder zone. For a more comprehensive list of uses for reclaimed water, check out this article from the United States Geological Survey.
So...how do we know where reclaimed water is being used? Purple is the designated color for a reclaimed water pipeline! If you see a purple pipe, chances are it is doing good for the community and the regional water supply. To see a map of reclaimed water pipelines throughout southwest Florida, check out this interactive map from Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Cape Coral Case Study
One reclaimed water success story is in the city of Cape Coral. The city was one of the first to adopt a residential dual water system (one that uses both potable and reclaimed water). A part of Lee County, Cape Coral rests south of Fort Myers and is next to the southern coast of Florida. It has over 400 miles of fresh and saltwater canals.
With access to so much water, its government decided to use these canals as well as reclaimed water to meet irrigation demands in the 1980’s. This was a major component to the Water Independence for Cape Coral (WICC) plan, which meant getting the most of its potable water supply and finding alternative water resources for irrigation. Implementing an alternative water source would help reduce strain on the Mid-Hawthorne (Intermediate) Aquifer, which supplied the city’s drinking water and was, at the time, nearly depleted and suffering from saltwater intrusion. Saltwater intrusion is caused by saltwater moving laterally from the ocean or vertically from within the aquifer.
In 1976, the local utilities department developed a novel Reverse Osmosis (RO) plant that would remove chlorides (salt) found in water from Lower-Hawthorne (Intermediate) Aquifer, making it safe and potable. Through RO and the use of reclaimed water, Cape Coral was successfully able to sustain the city’s water supply.
With a reclaimed water irrigation system now serving more than 38,000 residents, this incredible source of water is helping cut down the costs of using freshwater for the city’s 26.54 million gallons per day of irrigation.
The Future of Reclaimed in Sarasota
Like Cape Coral, Sarasota County is making strides in using reclaimed water for irrigation. In 2018, Sarasota County treated a total of 5.1 billion gallons of wastewater county-wide. Our county does a good job of using reclaimed water and is actively improving the process. Unfortunately, unused reclaimed water can be an issue. The Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (one of three main county facilities) sometimes produces more reclaimed water than is used by residents, especially in the rainy season. At Bee Ridge, this extra reclaimed water has discharged off-site when its storage pond is full. Although the water is safe for irrigation, this situation is not ideal.
Thankfully, Sarasota is working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) on introducing advanced wastewater treatment (AWT) to the Bee Ridge facility by 2025. AWT removes nitrogen and phosphorus from reclaimed water. This will make reclaimed water safer to release to downstream waters and gives it more potential for future applications. The county is also currently working on transferring excess water to a well at the Central County water reclamation facility, diverting wastewater flows to Central County, and reducing inflow during storms. More long-term solutions include creating two aquifer recharge wells at the Bee Ridge facility and increasing the amount of reclaimed water users.
Though there are some areas where reclaimed water distribution needs improvement, there is no doubt that it relieves great pressure from our local freshwater systems and allows us to reuse a very valuable resource. In this way, it is essential in our ongoing water conservation efforts.
Cutting Down on Personal Use
While reclaimed water is a very important tool in water conservation, we often make too much. Thus, individuals can make a big difference. Besides reducing the amount of water we use consciously (washing the dishes, moderating our shower time, etc.), we can also look to replace some of our more water-intensive machines at home with more efficient and environmentally-friendly ones. Check out this list of devices that can help reduce water use in your home. To learn more about making your home more water efficient, you can also read through this short article from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Remember, reclaimed water can be an extremely beneficial tool in our water conservation strategy from helping us irrigate our crops and natural areas to helping power important devices like cooling towers! To find out more about reclaimed water, check out this list of frequently asked questions.
*To see reuse data from the FDEP, download the report from their website.
An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices. Sarasota County prohibits discrimination in all services, programs or activities. View the complete policy at www.scgov.net/ADA.