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Coming Home After a Storm

Could aging water treatment plant stand in the way?
By Robert Frederickson

The primary drivers behind Sarasota County’s efforts to decommission the aging Siesta Key water treatment plant may

Pictured above, the Bee Ridge water reclamation facility east of I-75 just north of Rothenbach Park. When Siesta Key's treatment plant is decommissioned – planned for the end of 2016 –  the wastewater now treated on the Island will be pumped to this and other county facilities for treatment. Photo by R. Frederickson
Pictured above, the Bee Ridge water reclamation facility east of I-75 just north of Rothenbach Park. When Siesta Key’s treatment plant is decommissioned – planned for the end of 2016 – the wastewater now treated on the Island will be pumped to this and other county facilities for treatment. Photo by R. Frederickson

be financial and environmental in nature, but for Island residents the most important factor behind the decision may just be the removal of a potential roadblock to their timely return home in the aftermath of a hurricane evacuation.

We’ve all seen the images of frustrated property owners trying to get back home after a storm only to be turned away by authorities due to unsafe conditions in areas hit hardest by a storm. But Siesta hasn’t faced that scenario in the recent past. The storms that have forced an evacuation have either missed or skirted the area, allowing for a quick return for area residents. But what if our luck turns? How will the county decide when residents can go home? And could the treatment plant going down be a factor in keeping island residents from a quick permanent return over the next two storm seasons before its scheduled closing by the end of 2016?

“It’s certainly something we would consider,” said Ed McCrane, Chief of Sarasota County Emergency Service in a recent phone interview. “What we look at is whether or not the critical infrastructure is in place for the safety of residents.”

McCrane is the point man on a committee of county officials that will consider both when an evacuation is called for and when it is safe for residents to return in the days leading up to and following an emergency event like a hurricane. The team includes members of the county utilities department, public works department and sheriff’s office. In the event of an approaching storm, McCrane and his staff will consult with personnel from the National Hurricane Center, the Florida Division of Emergency Management, FEMA and local municipalities to consider the threat level the area faces. If there is agreement that an evacuation is warranted, that recommendation will go to the County Administrator, currently Thomas Harmer, who would then ostensibly make the final call, though in the unlikely event of a disagreement, the emergency chief is empowered by statute to make the decision on his own or approach the County Commission to formalize the decision.

The process is essentially the same on the back end after a storm passes. And for residents of Siesta, Lido and St. Armands Keys the decision as to when they can return is equally important, given the densities of the three barrier islands and their proportion of full time residents. Unlike other island communities along the U.S. coastline that predominantly feature second homes and vacation rentals, for a significant percentage of residents on the local keys, their home here is their only residence. They don’t have the luxury of another house waiting for them somewhere on the mainland.

According to McCrane prior to giving the “all clear” for return, “the first thing we’d look at will be the bridges. Have they been damaged by the storm?” The state Department of Transportation (FDOT) will conduct the inspections. If they pass muster, roadways will be looked at next. “Is there standing water, sand or downed trees/utility lines blocking access and making roadways unsafe,” he continued.

Once the roads are cleared, county crews would begin a survey of damage. “They’ll look at things like utility lines, electricity, water and other necessities,” he continued.

That’s not to say homeowners wouldn’t be able to make short, temporary visits to inspect their properties even while the county’s inspection process is underway. “Even if the bridges were out, there are plans in place to allow residents to be ferried over to the key for brief visits to see their homes.”

But as far as any permanent return goes, that decision would likely not come until all utilities were up and running properly, including the Siesta Key’s aging water treatment plant.

 But you might be thinking: couldn’t generators keep the plant running?

“The generators at the plant have enough capacity to keep the facility running,” according to Sarasota County Technical Design Manager Greg Rouse. But there are other factors to consider. “Will workers be able to get on the Key to get things up and running, will any possible flooding allow the generators to run? Will sand debris and salt-water have compromised any of the equipment?” All are potential drawbacks to the current location of the plant, Rouse points out.

The majority of those drawbacks will be removed after 2016 when the current plant is scheduled to be decommissioned and replaced by the master pumping station that will move the key’s waste to one of the county’s other treatment facilities, likely the one at the end of Bee Ridge Road just north of the old landfill.

As mentioned at the top of this piece, cost and environmental factors played the major role in the county’s decision to decommission the plant.

“When that plant was built 30 or 40 years ago, treatment standards were much lower than they are today,” Rouse explained. “Every time they’re increased (with new state or federal standards) the county has to spend money bringing the facility up to the new levels; and they’re unlikely to ever go down,” he adds, which makes the plant an ongoing and increasing financial burden moving forward.

The treatment standards Rouse mentions are necessarily higher for the Siesta Key plant because its treated effluent is released into “surface waters.” It is the only facility left in the county system  that does so. The rest release their treated effluent back into the ground through irrigation or forced “injection”. And this is perhaps the most important environmental benefit of closing the plant on the island. Despite being treated to current standards the effluent that is released by it still contains trace elements and metals that are potentially harmful to area waters and the fish and wildlife that depend on it.

Other environmental benefits Rouse points to include a decrease in the unpleasant odor generated by the plant that some island residents have complained about over the years, a reduction in traffic on the key (reducing noise and air pollution in addition to traffic congestion) from a decrease in/elimination of deliveries of chemicals, fuel and supplies needed to keep the plant running, a reduction in trips to and from the island by the county crews that currently staff the plant and an elimination of trucks sometimes called in during heavy rain events (most recently during Tropical Storm Debby in June of 2012) to transfer waste off the key due to the plant’s capacity being overwhelmed. The ‘sludge” that remains after the treatment process also has to be trucked off the Key.

A majority of the land where the plant is currently situated will also become available for other uses. Talk has touched on the portion that is freed up being used as an addition to Glebe Park or being sold to help offset the estimated $10-$13 million price tag of the new pump station/pipeline portion of the County’s capital expense budget.

But despite the importance of the cost savings from the consolidation of utility services and the improved environmental practices that should accrue from closing the plant, when it comes right down to it, perhaps the biggest plus for islanders can be found in the lesson Dorothy learned after her trip to Oz:

“There’s no place like home…”

And getting back there as quickly as possible after a major storm is…as that familiar credit card commercial would say…

          “Priceless.”