Largo reclaimed water system back online; cause of problem still a mystery

The city’s reclaimed water system is back online after a 19-day shutdown because of a mysterious spike in bacteria.

LARGO — The city’s reclaimed water system is back up and running, officials announced Dec. 10.

The system was shut down for 19 days because of a sudden increase in fecal coliform bacteria that has baffled environmental officials.

On Dec. 10, however, sample results fell below the maximum daily threshold for bacteria and the Department of Environmental Protection agreed the system could go back online.

What caused the recycled wastewater to fail to meet bacteriological requirements is still a mystery, Environmental Services Director Irvin Kety said Dec. 3.

“The fecal coliform failures have consistently gone down since we had those high numbers,” he said. “But we’re not sure what’s caused it. We have ideas with our engineering consultants.”

Kety said the city had taken several measures to eliminate the bacteria, including raising the amount of chlorine in the water and scrubbing and disinfecting tanks.

“There may be more than one thing that could’ve caused this,” he said.

One of those causes could be that part of the wastewater treatment plant is offline while it’s being rehabilitated and upgraded, he said, so officials don’t know how big a role that is playing and probably won’t know for several years.

“We have other things going on in the background in terms of trying to figure out what happened and how to improve the system so it won’t happen again,” he said.

In the meantime, the city discharged the below-standard water into Feather Sound ponds, which flow into Tampa Bay — something it is permitted to do by DEP.

Footing the bill

Since the system had been shut down for an extended period of time, Commissioner Michael Smith on Dec. 3 questioned if the city’s customers were still being charged.

At that time, City Manager Henry Schubert said the roughly 2,700 residential customers and 150 commercial customers would continue to be charged because they pay a flat $10 fee each month regardless of water usage. Commercial customers have a minimum charge plus a usage charge.

“We do tell people that if there is any disruption in service, we do not reduce the charge, similar to other utilities. And a lot of our costs in this type of system are fixed costs that are really unrelated to how much water people actually use,” Schubert said.

Smith disagreed with that approach, however, and said he would support a credit for consumers.

Mayor Woody Brown and Commissioner Jamie Robinson said they would only agree to that if the system remained shut down for an extended period of time.

On Dec. 6, Brown told Tampa Bay Newspapers that time had come.

“What I would like to see is credit a future month for our residential reclaimed customers,” he said.

“If it’s not working for a long period of time, then we need to do what’s right. And I think staff is in agreement as well.”

After announcing the system was back online Dec. 10, Schubert said staff would prepare a report about the total cost of such a credit, so the commission can then make a decision.

“We’ve been out of service for just under three weeks, so we are in the process of finding out from Pinellas County, who does our billing, what would be involved in providing everybody one month free service because of the inconvenience of having the system shut off,” he said.