by Mike Sharkey
The “Green Monster” is back in portions of the St. Johns River and one of its side effects may eventually be a higher JEA bill, perhaps even double.
A little-talked-about Environmental Protection Agency regulation that might be adopted by October 2011 will force JEA to strictly monitor the nutrient content of the wastewater that’s pumped into the St. Johns River.
Paul Steinbrecher, JEA director of environmental services, permitting and assessment, talked about the issue Thursday with the Jacksonville Waterways Commission.
“I have never seen one so controversial,” he said of the regulation. “It’s a very complex topic.”
The “Green Monster” is actually water in the river that’s heavy in nutrient content. This is caused by a number of things, but primarily high temperatures, dry weather, fertilizer run-off and nutrient-rich wastewater. Those elements combine to produce an algae bloom that can cover huge areas of the surface of the river. That bloom affects the quality of the water, the fish in the river and is potentially harmful to human beings.
Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon said the main source of the algae bloom right now seems to be Lake George in Putnam County. Since the St. Johns River flows north, and it’s getting warmer, that bloom is likely to push into Clay and then Duval counties.
The history of the regulation goes back to August 2008, when the EPA was sued for failing to establish a numeric criteria for the total maximum daily load of nutrients allowed to flow into the river. Steinbrecher explained that because those TMDLs vary depending on the body of water, its size, the location along the river (freshwater or saltwater) and several other factors, setting a TMDL is complicated.
In January 2009, the EPA ruled a numeric criteria was “necessary for Florida to be in compliance with the Clean Water Act,” according to information distributed by Steinbrecher.
“EPA documents indicate the motive was to promote settlement of the lawsuit; not because numeric criteria were ‘necessary’ under the Clean Water Act or scientifically feasible,” he said in the information.
In August 2009, the EPA and the groups involved in the lawsuit entered into an agreement in which the EPA proposed numeric criteria by January of this year for flowing waters. That criteria is supposed to be adopted by October. For marine waters and estuaries, the criteria may be proposed by January and adopted in October of 2011.
Steinbrecher contends the nutrient content of water is “body specific,” meaning the same criteria cannot be used across the board since different bodies of water handle nutrients in a different manner. He said the regulation will result in “arbitrary standards based on geographical grouping of streams with no accounting for actual causes to impairment.”
In order to meet the numeric nutrient content regulations, JEA would have to enhance its current wastewater treatment plants or build new ones. Steinbrecher said that could cost JEA $1.3 billion, something that “would approximately double utility (JEA’s) cost of compliance with no additional environmental benefit.”
He also said the restoration of the St. Johns River would be delayed as a result of having to build the infrastructure necessary to comply with the EPA regulation.
In other news from the Waterways meeting:
• The City began enforcing the 2008 ordinance that dealt with water restrictions and fertilizer run-off. According to Vince Seibold, chief of Environmental Quality for the City, there have been 732 investigations, 56 warnings issued and nine tickets written to offenders of the ordinance.
“We have been enforcing it since November of last year,” said Seibold.
There are three levels of enforcement and residents can be cited through either a verified complaint that’s called into the City or by a staff member of Seibold’s division who witnesses a violation. The first level is a warning followed by a $50 ticket, which is followed by a $250 ticket.
• JEA is working to use even more of its reclaimed water. Karl Hankin, manager of JEA’s water system, said the use of reclaimed water helps reduce the nutrient content of the water deposited into the river and reduces the amount of water needed from the Florida aquifer.
“Data shows the aquifer is limited for the future. Our plan is conservation, conservation, conservation,” said Hankin.
According to Hankin, about 80 million gallons of water a day go into JEA’s wastewater treatment plants. Of that, about 15 percent is reused.
“The City and JEA continue to work as a team on how to best utilize water in an efficient manner,” he said.
Hankin also said that in Jacksonville, people use about 100 gallons of water per person a day, a figure he said has dropped in recent years. He attributes the drop to the City’s irrigation law and the economy, which has forced people to cut back. That may mean quicker showers, less lawn watering, car washing and other chores that require water.
He said JEA produces about 11 million gallons of reclaimed water a day, some of which goes back into to the aquifer while the remainder is used for irrigation. However, JEA has the capacity to produce 26 million gallons a day.
“I think in the short time we have been in the reclaimed water business, we’ve done very well,” said Hankin. “While we don’t think reclaimed water is a panacea, we think it’s incredibly important for the community and the aquifer.”
Hankin was asked if he sees a day when JEA is able to treat and reclaim all 80 million gallons of water a day that gets pumped into its treatment plants.
“It’s certainly technically feasible. It is a huge cost, over $1 billion,” he said. “It is not currently a stated goal, but it is a desire of JEA to do as much with reclaimed water as possible. The true savings is what it does in protecting the river and aquifer.”
• The next meeting of the Waterways Commission is at 9 a.m. June 10 in Council Chambers.