Altamonte Springs, a city with a long history of innovation and sustainable planning, could be the first in Florida to convert wastewater into drinking water.
The city received bids from five multinational engineering firms Wednesday for a $1 million direct potable reuse demonstration project. Potable reuse is the process of treating wastewater to exceed federal drinking water standards.
As Florida grapples with explosive population growth over the next several decades, it could become a viable source for drinking water.
"The DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and St. Johns River Water Management District approached us because we have a history of successful innovation," city manager Frank Martz told GrowthSpotter on Wednesday. "They want us to lead a statewide discussion on potable water reuse."
The city has a regional water treatment facility that produces 12.5 million gallons per day (MGD) of reclaimed water, enough for virtually the entire city and several adjacent municipalities.
The selection committee will post tabulated results by Friday, and finalize the bid review by April 13, said procurement manager Barbara Kiser. City Commissioners could award the contract at their April 19 meeting.
The winning bidder will be expected to build a "side stream" to provide advanced treatment to a portion of the reclaimed water, purifying it to the point it exceeds drinking water standards. The demonstration project should produce 20-50 gallons per minute and up to 72,000 gallons per day.
Martz emphasized that the pilot project is strictly designed to prove the technology, educate the public and gather data for statewide policymaking.
"This is what we're not going to do: We're not going to use any of the water produced in this demonstration for drinking water," he said. "We're going to put it back in the reclaimed water supply."
The city will consider a variety of treatment methods, including a combination of reverse osmosis, UV light, microfiltration and/or biologically active filtration. But the firm that wins the contract will also be expected to do an extensive public outreach and educational campaign.
Cynthia Lane, director of Engineering and Technical Services for the American Waterworks Association, told GrowthSpotter that since there is no federal legislation regarding potable water reuse, each state is left to come up with its own regulations.
"The public education component is almost more important than the technology," Lane said. "We're at the point where we know the technology works."
But she said getting the public to accept advanced treated water (ATW) can be a major hurdle. The city of San Diego once pulled the plug on a potable reuse project because of politics and public backlash.
But Central Florida really has few options for alternative water supplies needed to keep with the region's explosive growth.
"For many communities, especially if you're looking at Florida, your available water is pretty maxed out," Lane said. "Options for water to support population growth are limited -- there are very few new sources, so potable reuse becomes one of those guaranteed supplies -- unless your entire population picks up and moves."
Altamonte Springs launched Project Apricot -- the nation's first citywide reclaimed water distribution system in the 1980s. And in 2014, the city introduced the first system of its kind to collect stormwater from Interstate 4, treat it and distribute it through the city's reclaimed water system.
At full capacity, the A-FIRST system will produce 4.5 MGD of reclaimed water for city customers, while excess supply will be piped to the city of Apopka free of charge for the next 50 years.
Typically, ATW in a direct potable reuse application would be introduced at the entrance of an existing drinking water treatment facility as a raw water supply. The city of El Paso is currently building an advanced water treatment plant that will supplement the city's drinking water by 15-20 percent.
In emergency situations, such as in drought-ridden Wichita Falls, Texas, the purified water was added directly to the city's drinking water distribution system.
"They had no other options," Lane said. "They were about to run out of water."
Indirect potable reuse is a far more common application. That's when the purified water is pumped into the aquifer, lake or river upstream of the water treatment plant's intake or wellfield.
So far the city of Clearwater has been the only water utility in Florida to venture into the field of potable reuse. Clearwater conducted a year-long pilot program to use the highly treated wastewater for groundwater recharge. The city injected the purified water into the Floridan Aquifer to minimize the impacts of withdrawals from city wells.
Melissa Meeker, executive director of WateReuse, said water officials shouldn't be afraid to call potable reuse by its more common vernacular: toilet-to-tap.
"I've learned to embrace it," she told GrowthSpotter. "There's no new water – all water is reused over and over again." And direct potable reuse will have "a huge potential to impact development."
A former governing board member and executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, Meeker is acutely aware of the region's water supply issues. That's why it makes sense for the demonstration project to take place in Central Florida.
"It's the perfect location to really push the envelope in Florida and test it," she said. "The question isn't whether the technology works. It's about whether or not the utilities are willing to make the investment to do it."