Sarasota County leaders have agreed in principle to dramatically upgrade a faulty wastewater treatment plant east of Interstate 75, blamed for spilling millions of gallons of polluted water and potentially contributing to area water quality problems for years.
The County Commission unanimously agreed at a budget workshop Wednesday to develop plans for converting the Bee Ridge Wastewater Reclamation Facility to have advanced wastewater treatment capability, a move the county’s critics on the issue have long sought. The public utilities staff, commissioners decided, will report to the commission in August with a timeline and cost projections for upgrading the 12-million-gallon-per-day facility on Lorraine Road to an 18-million-gallon advanced facility. The transformation would significantly reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in treated water — two key pollutants that can fuel harmful algae growth in waterways. Officials cited a ballpark cost of $65 million to $100 million for the project.
Advanced wastewater treatment was a hot topic earlier this month at the county’s Water Quality Summit, where science-based solutions were discussed by experts and members of the community alike in an effort to improve the area’s water quality. While some county officials seemed receptive to the idea despite the high projected cost, others leaned toward transferring as many people from septic systems to central sewers for wastewater disposal as the most effective way to combat water quality problems.
The upgraded facility, despite the hefty price tag, will likely be both worth it and necessary, commissioners emphasized Tuesday.
“We need to take note of the price tag attached,” said Commissioner Nancy Detert. But instead of being discouraged by the price tag, Detert added that it was critical for the staff to provide the commission with funding options for the upgrade in their August report. “Because we’ve discussed this many times and I think this board has come to the consensus that we’re going to have to pay it. It’s ‘pay me now or pay me later,’ because it’s that important to us.”
Sarasota County Public Utilities director Mike Mylett said a more concrete number should be narrowed down once the report is final.
While it is unclear how soon the upgrade could begin if approved following the pending report, full implementation would likely take until at least 2025. But according to Mylett, the county is about 95% done with short-term fixes that he feels confident will go a long way in alleviating some of the pressure the facilities have experienced, leading to spills, though he said that all bets are off when it comes to particularly large storms.
“We’ve reconfigured some internal reclaimed water piping and mains to allow us to transfer more flow from the Bee Ridge facility through one of our intermediary pond facilities, and that allows us to use deep wells that exist,” Mylett said, referring to disposal options.
Commission Chairman Charles Hines made it clear that immediate action was needed.
“Septic to sewer I agree with, but that’s more of a long-term thing … we learned from Phillippi Creek that that’s a 20-year process,” Hines said of a long-running central sewer program. “I want to be able to leave this meeting and say to the public that we started this process. I’m a little concerned that the public’s going to go, ‘2025?’ We need to have a layout for why that takes so long. If we say, today, go forward, we need the public to know that we are marching forward and that there’s no hesitation on this, and that that’s just how long it takes to do it.”
Officials began looking into new wastewater practices following a litany of grievances from residents about recent water quality issues, including one of the worst and most prolonged red tide blooms on record along the Southwest Florida coast. Commissioner Christian Ziegler said that addressing the water quality problems has been by far one of the public’s biggest demands he’s heard.
The push for upgraded wastewater treatment follows persistent pollution problems that prompted environmental groups to sue the county for dumping more than 800 million gallons of treated wastewater since 2013, despite officials’ awareness that there was a need to increase storage capacity at the Bee Ridge Reclamation Facility. It also comes with the looming possibility of a consent order being levied by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which could impose fines on the county.
The 140-acre Bee Ridge facility, built in the 1990s, is an advanced secondary facility. Though permitted to process 12 million gallons of sewage daily, the plant typically handles about 7 million to 8 million gallons a day. Treating the water to a higher level would reduce pollution, officials say.
“I think this is something that’s great for the county. I think it’s a great decision to make a commitment to water quality. If you look at the amount of nitrogen that’s coming from this facility and all the others, this will be a huge opportunity for the county,” said Ziegler.