Good news and bad news for Vero's drinking water
The good news is that the latest test results seem to confirm that the contaminants from a 30-year old landfill a short distance from Vero’s drinking water wells seem to be dissipating after years of cleanup and monitoring efforts.
The bad news is that the remaining “plume of contamination” in the groundwater appears to be slowly moving in the general direction of Vero’s wells from the 115-acre site, 60 acres of which is on airport property.
“Based upon surface maps generated from the July 2013 data and consistent with historical data for the site, the inferred direction of groundwater flow is generally to the southeast,” says an Aug. 27 report compiled for the county and submitted to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The report emphasizes that the southeast movement of the groundwater is nothing new. In fact, that’s the “historical” trend of the data, since the wells from which Vero pumps two-thirds of its drinking water are what scientists call “downgradient” of the landfill site. Water tends to follow gravity and fill a void.
“In general, water levels are higher on the western and northwestern portion and lower on the southern and southeastern portion of the area being monitored. Generally, the inferred direction of groundwater flow is toward the southeast in each groundwater zone,” the report states.
That’s why FDEP ordered the county to expand the monitoring area last year. The Indian River County Solid Waste Disposal District (SWDD) monitors 62 wells, 27 by traditional sampling and 36 by a “passive diffusion bag” method. The new wells, some of which are just a few hundred feet from the city’s drinking water supply, went online in August.
“Vinyl chloride concentrations exceeded the Groundwater Cleanup Target Level (GCTL) in 18 monitoring wells and the Natural Attenuation Default Concentration (NADC) in five monitoring wells,” states the report compiled by Geosyntec Processing Geologist Jill Johnson.
Analytical results from plume monitoring revealed no contaminants above target levels in the shallow water zone of 2 to 15 feet below sea level. Seven contaminants showed up in higher-than-target levels in wells of 20 to 35 feet below sea level; three of those, including the common industrial solvents benzene and trichloroethylene (TCE) were detected above target levels in groundwater 35 to 55 feet deep and four contaminants showed up on tests 55 to 85 feet, the deepest category in the report.
According to city officials, most of Vero’s drinking water wells under the airport are 75 to 100 feet deep.
The city, to date, has not had a problem with meeting or even exceeding state and federal water-quality standards, but a $3 million project is in the works to, over several years, retire some of the western wells closest to the contamination zone and increase the city’s capacity to take drinking water from the Floridan Aquifer, where wells typically range from about 250 to 1,000 feet deep.
This move, according to Vero water-sewer Director Rob Bolton, is designed to meet new tougher standards for cancer-causing agents, regulations being handed down by the Environmental Protection Agency. Switching to deeper wells and reverse osmosis helps remove compounds formed when chlorine bonds with other chemicals in the disinfection process.
The area in, under and around the old Gifford Road landfill has been actively worked for the past 14 years, yet the City of Vero Beach continues to pump millions of gallons of water out of its wells at the nearby airport site for residents and ratepayers in South Beach and Indian River Shores to drink, cook with and bathe in.
“Based upon the discovery of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in groundwater samples, a dissolved plume and source assessment investigation was initiated by Geosyntec in 1999,” the report states.
Five years of sampling and study ensued, with FDEP ordering groundwater monitoring in 2001 to begin in 2002. The Indian River County Solid Waste Disposal District and its consultants launched a cleanup in 2004, involving both physical excavation and removal of toxic materials, pump-and-treat containment and flushing and chemical acceleration of hazardous compounds, the premise being that they’re less hazardous broken down into component chemicals. A physical barrier was also installed to halt the flow of contaminants by trapping the groundwater being treated.
In 2011 the county was ordered to expand the scope of its monitoring, sinking monitoring wells on the outskirts of the “plume” area to see if it was spreading. Those new wells were first sampled in August 2012. The city’s drinking water wells are not included in the 62 sites.
“We do not sample the wells associated with the City of Vero Beach wellfield; however, we do include information about the city’s wells when data is available,” said Waste Disposal District Managing Director Himanshu Mehta, an environmental engineer.
According to the EPA, the agency “has set an enforceable regulation” for trichloroethylene at a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 0.005 mg/L or 5 ppb” for end-product drinking water. That is different from the groundwater taken from the wells as the water is filtered and treated before it goes out to customers.
However, tests on six of the city’s wells, according to Appendix C of the most recent report sent to FDEP, show results all over the map since 2007, from undetectable amounts of VOCs to levels hundreds of times the limit that should end up in drinking water.
The city water department is required to monitor a portion of its drinking water wells each quarter. It is the results of the final product pumped into consumers’ pipes that gets tested for contaminants, and by then the water is put through an extensive filtering, disinfection and treatment process to ensure safety.
Water is not only a limited natural resource, but also a commodity and that often brings politics into play. Fortune magazine declared that “Water will be to the 21st Century what oil was to the 20th”
Locally, water and sewer service has been a source of controversy with two providers – the City of Vero Beach and Indian River County – literally operating next door to one another. The city’s system is older and in need of expansion, but it provides a tidy profit of about $2.5 million which is transferred into the general fund to offset property taxes, which only amount to $4 million.
The county system has capacity to spare, as it built for decades of rapid growth that have yet to materialize – county officials say, in fact, that they have enough capacity to take on the whole City of Vero Beach system, which encompasses not only the city limits, but Indian River Shores and the south barrier island to the St. Lucie County line.
Vero won the battle over who would serve the Shores when City Manager Jim O’Connor offered county rates to the Shores and immediate savings on reuse irrigation water and Shores officials snapped up the deal in 2012. The next battlefield is the south barrier island, where residents still pay city rates plus a 10 percent surcharge for living outside the city limits. The franchise agreement for the South Beach customers expires in March 2017 and attorneys have been sparring over the issue for nearly three years.
Last month, the Board of County Commissioners directed staff to draw up a compromise to offer Vero Beach officials. Vero could keep serving the South Beach customers after 2017 without a legal challenge in exchange for only a three percent surcharge tacked on by the city. The county, in turn, would halve its normal 6 percent franchise fee. Commissioner Bob Solari said the last he heard, some version of that offer is set to be presented to the city in mid-November, perhaps at the Nov. 19 council meeting.
The county offered the city $24 million to purchase its water-sewer utility and city officials turned that down cold. Solari said he still thinks a regional approach to providing water, sewer and irrigation water is the way to go.
“Understanding that I can only speak for myself, and given the Sunshine restrictions have had no conversations with my fellow Commissioners, I personally believe that folding the City of Vero Beach system into the County system would be in the best interests of all the Citizens of Indian River County,” he said. “Given this belief, I would certainly be open to future talks but I think that it would be best if they were initiated by the City Council of the City of Vero Beach. Based on past Board of County Commission meetings, I believe, that if a request came from the City of Vero Beach City Council, the Commission as a whole would be receptive to it.”
“That said, unless the City Council understood how the County values the City system, I do not think that the talks would go far,” Solari added.
City Manager O’Connor told Vero Beach 32963 three weeks ago that Vero is less than enthused about the county’s South Beach offer. It’s the city’s position that Vero not only owns the infrastructure to serve the South Beach customers, but that Vero has the legal right to keep serving them – with or without a franchise agreement from the county due to what the city’s attorneys view as a “permanent territory” granted by a 30-plus year old state statute.
Solari, a Central Beach resident, has long held that it’s tough to get Vero to the table on regionalization because the goals of the two utilities are very different.
“The City appears to value their system based on the greatest future cash flows that might flow from their utilities. The County bases the value of the City utilities on the discounted value of future cash flows using the cash flows that would be generated using the actual rates that the County charges its customers,” Solari said.
Vero Councilman Dick Winger has on many occasions called the city’s water-sewer utility a “cash cow” and Councilman Jay Kramer has said the city would be nuts to consider taking the pittance the county is offering for a lucrative, ongoing business.
“The County focus is to give, at the lower usage tiers, water at the lowest price consistent with quality water and a financially healthy utility. It does not use its utility to provide money to its general fund,” Solari said. “Given this customer centric focus as opposed to the City’s government centered focus, the value of the utility to the County may well be substantially less than it is to the City of Vero Beach.”