Royal Flush: Sanitation Prices on the Rise

By: Andy Alcock Email
By: Andy Alcock Email

Tallahassee, FL -- May 23, 2012 -

It's a huge water consumer.

Florida State University uses it to help keep the campus cool.

You think your utility bills are high?

FSU spends about $30-million dollars each year on them including water and sewer.

It's Energy Engineer Jim Stephens job to look for cost savings.
"Well it's a lot of little things add up together."

One water saving measure put in place was removing the hot water faucets from campus bathrooms.

Stephens says, "You tend to run the water longer if you're waiting for the hot water to come. So we save money on both the energy to make the hot water and on actual water itself."

And there's good reason for Florida State and other consumers to look for cost-saving measures.

In 2010, the city of Tallahassee raised water rates 11 percent. Sewer rates went up 14 percent.

While there was no increase this past year, over the next five years, the city is planning to add rate increases based on the consumer price index.

It would be an estimated increase of 2.4 percent in October.

John Buss, Tallahassee Water Resources Manager, says, "We do try to control our costs. And when you think about what you spend on utilities in related value or having water when you turn that pump on and have that water go away when you flush a commode, it's a fairly economical purchase."

And the system needs constant upgrading. This project, for example on Franklin Street is changing out up to 80 year old clay sewer pipes.

There's still about 400 miles of the old clay pipe left in Tallahassee.

They're being replaced with more reliable plastic or PVC pipes.

And downtown Tallahassee's water system is also in the process of being replaced.

"It's gotten old, the valves are old, so we are systematically rebuilding the entire downtown water system."

City Water Resources Manager John Buss, also, says the city spends up to $3-million dollars each year moving water and sewer pipes when roads are widened.

There's also maintenance of water and sewer pumping stations. They run around the clock.

And city growth and population shifts also mean adding access.

This new water pumping station is being built near the growing Southwood area.

"We maintain 20 year master plans. We're looking 20 years in the future all the time. That master planning takes into account population growth in the various areas of town so that we have capacity both now and in the future."

Meanwhile, low-flow toilets, sinks and other measures are saving money at FSU.

The conservation measures have been so successful, money saved in the utilities budget is being put back into the university's general fund at a time when FSU is facing a major shortfall.

"It definitely allows us to keep maybe some other things going that would otherwise be cut."

We mentioned Tallahassee's water and sewer rates have been on the rise.

One major reason is a massive upgrade currently underway at the city's waste water treatment plant.

We'll have the full poop, so to speak, on that project in part two of our special report, "Royal Flush".


Tens of millions of dollars are being spent to upgrade Tallahassee's water treatment plant.

Ultimately, the city's water and sewer customers are paying for it.

Flush any toilet in Tallahassee and the contents head into a very complex system.

Through robotic cameras like this one, utilities managers can see inside the city's working sewer pipes, like this one on Franklin Street.

They can check for clogs or damages.

Old clay sewer pipes on Franklin Street are currently being replaced by plastic ones.

Ultimately, everything in Tallahassee's sewer system ends up here, at the Thomas P. Smith Water Reclamation Center.

Joe Cheatham, Smith Center Director, says, "We treat over 18 million gallons per day of waste water from all over the city of Tallahassee and surrounding areas."

In addition to treating all that sewage, the Smith Center is also a major construction site.

Based on an agreement with Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, the center is upgrading to the gold standard of water reclamation, a royal flush.

Total cost of the project, $227-million.

It was the main driver for a 14 percent increase in sewer rates in 2010.

And a rate study is currently under way to determine how customers will continue to pay for the project.

"The best solution for improving the water quality of the Wakulla Springs, which is the largest spring shed in the world is to go to advanced water treatment standards."

The result is residential customers are paying a higher sewer rate compared to 9 other similar sized Florida utilities.

Tallahassee residents pay $31.76 per 3-thousand gallons.

It's well above the St. Petersburg rate of $20.98 and second highest out of ten to only St. Lucie and Indian River Counties where the rate is $44.14 per 3-thousand gallons.

John Buss, Tallahassee Water Resources Manager, says, "When you consider what we deliver and how complicated it is to run all those pipes, collect it all, take it back and reclaim that water. We do it all for less than you pay for cable. That's pretty impressive in my book."

The Smith Center project is designed to get rid of nearly all the bacteria and nitrogen from treated water.

Treated water is already being used at a 4-thousand acre spray-field in southeast Tallahassee.

The water could eventually be used on golf courses and for irrigation.

Also, methane gas captured in the process will be used to dry the remaining bio-solids.

And those solids are then used as a soil conditioner.

The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014.

"We have some milestones in between there to meet on reducing our nitrogen levels and we're way ahead of that schedule."

And Center Director Joe Cheatham says there's even a plan to handle the worst possible problem.

Located so close to the Tallahassee Airport, there are landing lights on treatment center's property, he says a crash there wouldn't necessarily shut down the very large plant.

"We make sure we have redundant pieces of equipment so if something catastrophic did happen, we're very well prepared for it."

The current plan is to base water and sewer rate increases on the consumer price index.

Based on that plan, the next rate increase this October is expected to be around 2.4 percent. So if you pay fifty dollars for your bill, it would increase a dollar twenty.

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