Oldsmar neighborhood coalition tackles reclaimed water issues

Pinellas County Utilities Customer Services Director Georges Gonzalez addresses a question during the CNCN reclaimed water forum at East Lake Woodlands Country Club on Monday, May 21, 2018.

OLDSMAR – A coalition comprised of local homeowners associations recently hosted a public forum with Pinellas County officials to discuss reclaimed water issues.

The Coalition of North County Neighborhoods, a group of roughly 24,000 HOA members in the East Lake/Palm Harbor/Oldsmar area, held the hour-long discussion on May 21 at the East Lake Woodlands Country Club in Oldsmar, with the purpose of having the county utilities officials answer questions and shed some light on issues related to reclaimed water use.

A group of roughly 2-dozen residents came prepared for the meeting, peppering interim Utilities Director Megan Ross and Customer Services Director Georges Gonzalez with questions ranging from the basic why are there so many service shut downs? to the complex do you test for airborne contaminants?

“It all begins with education,” Ross said. “The more we share information and knowledge, the more habits change.”

After answering a handful of questions, Ross launched a Power Point presentation that explained the new master plan they are implementing for the RCW system and touched on many of the topics raised by the residents.

Some of the chief concerns centered on the rising cost of reclaimed water, which has gone from being free to upwards of $30 a month for some customers; how the county comes up with, and enforces, the restrictions placed on reclaimed water usage and how to better communicate with reclaimed water users.

“We’re working with our IT department to launch a new website,” Ross said. “We’re looking at ones that have won awards, and we’re trying to mimic them to make our customer service system more efficient.”

She then explained the reason behind the seemingly random shut downs of the county’s RCW system, which started in 1973, was upgraded in 1985 and again in the mid-’90s and features 5,500 active accounts.

“We have a supply and demand issue in north county,” Ross said. “In south county, there’s excess water in the wet season that has to be discharged in a creek nearby. But the north county doesn’t waste any water. So, the issue is, there’s excess water when it’s not needed and a shortage when it’s needed.”

She added that “moving it is expensive, and we want to keep the cost low to customers.”

Gonzalez related how he once had someone ask why they can’t just make more reclaimed water when needed, and he replied, “No. There is enough water, but there’s a lot of people using it.”

That prompted Cobb’s Landing resident Cheryl Anderson to ask if they were adding new homes to the system, to which Gonzalez replied “yes.”

“You can’t handle what you have now, so why are you adding more?” Anderson shot back.

Gonzalez explained that “years ago, it used to take five homes to make enough reclaimed water for one home. Today it takes eight to 10,” and the idea is to add more customers in hopes of expanding the availability of RCW service throughout the county.

Eventually, Ross wrapped up the session by noting once the master plan is completed by the end of this year, “we’ll have a really good idea of where our system is,” and she reminded those in attendance about the importance of conservation.

“Conservation is not just about using less; it’s about using at the right time,” she said, adding, “we highly promote Florida-friendly landscaping.”

Afterwards, Ross spoke about the importance of connecting with the community through the CNCN.

“I thought it was definitely a success,” she said. “It’s going to be the beginning of a great partnership for communication and for outreach.”

Asked if she was surprised about the volume and intensity of the questions, Ross was unfazed.

“No, not at all,” she said. “We have a 24/7 customer contact center and we get a lot of these questions every single day, all the time, and that’s why our presentation was geared toward that theme because we pretty much know what the customers need and that’s why we’re here to meet that.”

Sue Hamill, president of the Cobb’s Landing Homeowners Association, said she appreciated the county’s effort to better inform the residents about the ins and outs of the reclaimed water system.

“It was very informative, very educational,” Hamill said, noting she was on a fact-finding mission to present information about the service to her HOA board. “The county is very easy to work with if you know the resources and how to get in touch with them. Once you have that communication, you can get results.”

CNCN director John Miolla said he believed the session was beneficial to all involved.

“I was surprised we got the turnout that we did,” he said. “But I think engaging the county will be beneficial to the residents and the county both.”