In 2018 Florida became more aware than ever of the problem with toxic algae in our water, growing in our rivers, flowing into the ocean. We’ve seen numerous social media videos, testimony and evidence of wildlife killed by the algae: fish, sea turtles and manatee. Toxic algae grows because there’s excessive nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, flowing into Florida’s water systems. The nutrients come from farms and from wastewater. Nutrients that come from wastewater come from septic tanks and from municipalities who discharge their effluent into rivers and the ocean. Boca Raton used to discharge its treated wastewater into the ocean. But now Boca does something different, something smarter with its wastewater, and little of it ends up in the ocean like it used to. The system Boca uses is called IRIS, a system of recycling the wastewater. If every municipality in Florida did what Boca does the nitrogen and phosphorus would be diminished greatly. Doing what Boca does could end the toxic algae problem.
During a City Council meeting I mentioned the wastewater discharge from my city flowing into the ocean. A Council Member, Jeremy Rodgers, who is an engineer by trade, corrected me and stated how our wastewater no longer makes it out to sea. He pointed me to the Water Plant and said “now they recycle it with the IRIS Program.”
That necessitated a visit, to learn what they were doing with that wastewater, and why it wasn’t being pumped offshore any more. The City of Boca Raton’s Water Plant sits on the north side of Glades Rd. before I-95, just west of FAU and south of Boomers. Having lived in Boca for decades now I must have driven past the plant and massive storage tanks, ignoring it maybe a thousand times. Being on the north side of the chain link fence, under the long line of oaks, was a surreal sensation. Glades Road always seemed bright and electric, but under the oaks, alongside millions of gallons being pumped there, seemed the opposite: cool and magnetic. Chris Helfrich, Director of Boca Raton’s one and only Water Plant, met me at his office and our tour of the facility began. He promised to show me how the IRIS system works, how Boca prevents its nutrients from being pumped into the ocean.
The general principle of the IRIS program, Chris explained, was to reclaim the wastewater and to use it as water to irrigate golf courses. Within the City of Boca Raton we’ve got multiple communities that have large, beautiful, lushly landscaped golf courses. They pull their irrigation water from the lakes, aka water hazards, and use it, instead of tap water, to keep their courses green.
THE PROBLEM: Wastewater is collected by South Florida cities in treatment plants. Most still pump the effluent offshore. That causes toxic algae to grow. The same effect takes place in fresh water that fills Lake Okeechobee: nitrogen and phosphorus is released causing algae blooms.
The IRIS system re-fills the lakes as the water is used, filling them with the recycled wastewater that’s pre-loaded with the nutrients the plants would otherwise get from fertilizer. The City sells the recycled water to the communities and the communities save big on water costs. It also means the City ends up producing a lot less potable tap water, water that’s safe to drink, because it’s not being wasted to irrigate golf courses. Before the IRIS program the per-capita water consumption, the amount of water that would be used in Boca divided by the number of occupants, was 445 gallons per day. Now that number has been reduced drastically, since the program went into effect in 1998 to around 250 gallons per day.
HOW IRIS WORKS: Nitrogen and phosphorus elemental nutrients flow into the wastewater treatment plant. Instead of being pumped offshore, the nutrients are discharged into a holding pond or lake unconnected to the ocean.
HOW IRIS “FIXES” THE NUTRIENTS: Irrigation water is drawn from the lake. The nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, are used as fertilizer by vegetation or flow into the ground, not the ocean.
Chris showed how wastewater comes into the plant, how its treated, how its regulated, and how it makes it back out to the golf courses. The first place we visited was where the wastewater flows into the plant. This was one of the nastiest places I’ve ever been. The Grit Station is where solids are removed from the wastewater.
Large metal grates rotate and lift the “grit” containing paper, string, plastic and everything else flushed down toilets that hasn’t broken down on its way in. Chris opened the door to the grit chamber to show me what was inside. I didn’t notice the way he stood back as he opened the door. It took a second for the blast of stench to hit me, but when it did he was waiting for the look on my face. I realized why he stood back. That place is literally the worst place in Boca Raton, hands down. The fact that Boca is paradise is in no small part because everything foul has been collected there.
I walked down the metal steps, away from the grit chamber, feeling weakened. I asked Chris “how long will it take before the smell goes away?” He assured me that the rest of the tour is downhill after that.
Water is separated even more from the solids and what’s left is sent to incinerators the county runs. Those solids are converted to Milorganite, a fertilizer you can purchase at Home Depot. The water that’s removed from the stream at this point is treated with chlorine, to sterilize it, and then stored. This is the water that’s recycled. It doesn’t smell. It doesn’t have a recognizable color. When I stood on a gantry above the separator tanks, where the solids are settled and the water flows off the top, I could hardly smell it.
The treated wastewater, at this point, used to be pumped out to sea. However, in this case, after flowing over the edge of this circular pool the water is filtered and disinfected. Then the reclaimed water is held in two enormous tanks, just to the west of the FAU soccer fields. Between the tanks is a glass windowed room. Inside that room are an array of pumps and valves.
From there the pipes lead away, mostly to the north and west. Pipes lead to half a dozen golf courses within the city, to parks, to the lakes that hold the water for irrigation. Communities that use the water include Woodfield, Broken Sound, and Boca West. The city has over 1600 customers hooked to the system, irrigating with it. If the connections are available you can even connect a residence to it.
The control room is where the operator can open and close valves to Boca’s community lakes.
There’s some irony behind golf courses being a solution for limiting toxic algae pollution. Classically golf courses would get blamed for using fertilizer and other chemicals, polluting local water sources with storm water runoff. However, a golf course can be engineered for the Florida ecology, the irrigation system can be hooked in with an IRIS type system and channeled so it doesn’t flow into canals. This way a golf course can be used as the green space required to absorb and sequester nutrients instead of releasing them into groundwaters and the ocean. The same environmentalists who cursed golf courses through the last three decades might now need to turn around and lobby their municipalities to subsidize them. Not every golf course uses the reclaimed water – so there’s still far more capacity to take the treated water than Boca will ever be able to use completely. Given today’s technology, given the availability of this kind of way to use and pay for the recycled water, Boca is not limited in terms of its ability to handle more wastewater.
The nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients that are in high levels in the reclaimed water are used by plants. As the plants grow the nitrogen and phosphorous are fixed into the plant material itself, removed from the water. As the golf course is mowed and the landscaping is trimmed solid, organic waste is created. This solid landscaping refuse can be collected, incinerated, used as mulch. It can be composed or used as energy and construction materials. The bottom lines is that the nitrogen and phosphorous are removed from the water and don’t, for the most part, end up going back in. The plants that are soaking up the nutrients, to be useful in the same way, don’t need to be on land. They can instead be plants that grow in the water.
Using golf courses to soak up the reclaimed water is a great opportunity for the city to recoup the money it takes to treat and get rid of the wastewater. The money the city makes from selling reclaimed water doesn’t pay for the entire cost of its treatment and distribution, but at least it offsets the costs. When you combine this savings with the substantial difference in how much potable water the city has to produce as a result, the system is hard to debate against. We’re lucky because we have enough golf courses, consumers who maintain green spaces, not just city supported parks and preserves. Some municipalities aren’t so lucky, for example big cities, where the ratio of people to green space doesn’t allow such a complete use of reclaimed water.
This doesn’t help the nutrients already in Lake O though – a bigger fixation system is needed.
The nutrient laden water flowing out of Lake Okeechobee makes a relative fast track out to the ocean, only passing by some municipalities on its way, filling lagoons and waterways on both the east and west coast. In order to remove the nutrients from such a high flow of water, in order to treat such a high volume of nutrient laden water during peak flow times, the water will need to handled in an innovative fashion.
Large zigzagging channels need to be created south of the Lake. Fixing the nutrients in plant species that grow quickly, species that are already there, is the only way to practically remove the nutrients from the water. The fast growing plants would need to be selected, nurtured and removed at the end of each stage of the flow channel. The plant mass would be removed from the water and used as fuel. Whether they’re burned directly and converted to energy or used to produce fuel, cellulosic ethanol, this would be another means to have the necessary cleanup costs be in part recouped.
Hopefully cities up and down the coast, especially the cities inland that contribute nutrients into Lake Okeechobee as part of the Kissimmee River system, can engineer solutions that don’t just produce energy or resources. Hopefully some effort will go into creating wetland habitats like Delray’s Wakodahatchee. This small parcel of land is used to naturally treat wastewater effluent, similar in quality to the reclaimed water that’s sold in Boca. The amount of plant and animal life packed into this small area is impressive, an effect of the presence of the elements that make life thrive: water, sun, and nutrients. Photographers visit Wakodahatchee to capture some of the best wildlife shots.
We have to do everything we can to encourage our neighbors to follow suit. There are five outflow pipes to the south that still pump wastewater offshore. Some neighbors inject their wastewater deep under the ground, down into the lowest aquifers. Failing septic systems, citrus farms and dairy farms to the north of Lake Okeechobee add far more nutrients now into the lake compared to the sugarcane farms to the south.
The “Champions” of This Toxic Algae Problem Might Just Be Its Biggest Exploiters.
Don’t tolerate politicians who like to use the issue of nutrient pollution as their pet cause, but avoid sincerely addressing it on account of its political value. Don’t assume that some other person or some organization has sincere motives – be cynical and ask the uncomfortable questions. The time of exploiting this issue politically is over. Now we know what it will take to solve it. We can ask candidates running for election this November whether they’ll commit to a statewide program to require all municipalities to reclaim water and cooperate to help reclaim the water of higher density cities. Together we can do this. We have to.