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Palm Beach Post: Commentary: West Palm should weigh choices for water system upgrade

Monday, December 29, 2014

In The Palm Beach Post’s Dec. 12 editorial, “Improvements promising for water customers,” the Editorial Board accurately points out the historic problems and challenges the city of West Palm Beach has faced when trying to achieve a reliable long-term water supply and meeting the quality requirements of the 2008 Florida Department of Health consent decree that requires the city to implement a new treatment system by 2018.

Specifically ordered by the health department was a membrane system that guarantees the highest-quality drinking water for residents. Since 2008, the city has spent or bonded almost $180 million on improvements and upgrades to its legacy water treatment system that has been limping along since Henry Flagler built it 110 years ago. Although upgrades have been made, there has been no real progress on compliance with the consent decree that requires a new, modern water treatment system that achieves a sustainable long-term solution.

Wisely, the health department recognized the need for high-quality membrane treatment by expressly requiring this technology in the decree. In 2011, the city asked the health department whether it could, instead, get by with a cheaper ultraviolet system (UV). The department responded by saying that such a system would at least be better than what is currently in place.

Unlike a UV system, state-of-the-art membrane technology completely removes the bacterial particles in the water. UV systems kill bacteria but do not remove it from the water that the residents would drink. So, while The Post editorial points out that UV may be the least costly in the short term, it may not deliver the best result in the long term. Also, the UV system will require additional investments in the plant, meaning — in the long run — it is not likely to be the most cost-effective.

The question before the West Palm Beach City Commission should be how to achieve a state-of-the-art membrane water treatment system which the health department recognized as the best solution six years ago. Membrane technology will deliver the highest-quality water at a cost that is comparable the city’s current system. This upgrade is a sensible alternative to continuing to sink millions of dollars into a 110-year-old plant.

West Palm Beach city commissioners will be hearing more presentations from city staff regarding options for water treatment solutions, including a proposal for a short-term solution using a UV system. At the same time, they should also hear a proposal for a membrane system that can provide a long-term, cost-effective solution and produce higher-quality water. Simultaneous consideration of alternatives is the most effective way to compare the attributes of these options so the best system can be selected to serve the families, residents, visitors and businesses who rely on clean water in West Palm Beach.

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