Sunday, March 8, 2015

Citizens Academy Meets the Utility Department

Utilities Director Tom Jackson
The most recent Citizens Academy session was an introduction to Punta Gorda's largest department -- the world of utilities. It was an eye-opening morning led by Director Tom Jackson.  As a former regulator with both the Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida DEP, Mr. Jackson has inspected or been involved with other 1500 water plants and similar facilities. Consequently, when he said that Punta Gorda has the "finest utility anywhere in Florida," I felt that only a bit of puffery was involved. With a classroom session and visits to both the water treatment plant and the waste water treatment plant, we covered a lot of ground.  Here are some of the highlights:
--The Punta Gorda utilities department is a full service operation.  It makes the product (clean water), delivers it, collects the product (waste waster and bio-solids), cleans that product and disposes of it. The utilities department's budget of approximately $18 million is equal to that of the other departments' budgets combined. Now that I'm up on all of the financial lingo, I knew what it meant when Jackson said the department is financed through enterprise funds.  (Refresher: This means the department's coffers are filled by fees for services rendered rather than tax dollars.)

Settling sludge -- you can see
why drinking this would not
promote good health
-- In the early 20th century, life expectancies doubled due to public health improvements such as the provision of clean drinking water. And so, while the utilities function may not be glamorous, Jackson is highly cognizant that his department is "responsible for 36,000 lives every second of the day." (Take that, you "guns and hoses" guys.)

-- The City's goal is to not use water that's been in the system more than three days in order to ensure against the build-up of bacteria. When you see a hydrant spewing water, the water lines servicing that area are being flushed.  (There are 1100 fire hydrants in the City and 40 linear miles of pipes.)

-- The quality of water in Punta Gorda is tested every 20 minutes.  

-- Punta Gorda's water comes from Shell Creek. Reliance on surface water rather than ground water as our water source means that Jackson's job can get a little stressful during the dry months.  One of the prime benefits of the much discussed $32 million reverse osmosis plant is that it will serve as a back-up water source.  The City is permitted to draw 11 million gallons per day from Shell Creek; approximately 5 million gallons/day is currently needed,  (Note: The rest of Charlotte County buys its raw water from DeSoto County.)

Color coded pipes at
 water treatment plant
-- The water treatment plant has a color coded pipe system that identifies which chemicals are running where. I believe the orange pipe indicates alum while the yellow is for chlorine.  Truthfully, I just really like this picture which, like the others, was taken by fellow Citizens Academy classmate (and photographer extraordinaire) Bruce Tompkins.

-- It's important to distinguish between aesthetics versus health issues with respect to our water.  The (kind of yucky) way PG water tastes falls squarely into the category of aesthetics.  It's attributable to the water's hardness and is one reason most people have water softener systems. Once it's up and running (in five-seven years), the RO plant should alleviate some of these aesthetic issues.

-- The waste water treatment plant treats 2 million gallons of collected waste water and bio-solids each day. "Good" bugs are utilized in the treatment process, which we had a chance to look for using one of the lab's microscopes.  (I wasn't successful at this venture, but some of my classmates were.)  Once treated, the liquids go into an injection well approximately 3000 feet below ground and the solids are dispersed into the fields.

I will admit that, like most people, I take for granted being able to turn on a faucet and have clean water flow out for my consumption. (I've taken other plumbing issues for granted as well!)  Thanks to the Citizens Academy, Jackson and his first rate team for giving me a greater appreciation of the process.  And now it's time to hit the shower.....

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