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Vero to spend $3 million to keep drinking water safe

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of October 10, 2013)

Last week the Vero Beach City Council approved $72,000 to install a new water purification membrane – the first of a series of bills expected to eventually total about $3 million to keep the city’s drinking water safe and in compliance with new water-quality standards.

In March 2012, Vero Beach 32963 reported that Vero Beach Utilities gets two thirds of its drinking water from 26 shallow wells under the Vero Beach Municipal Airport. Some are less than a half mile from an area being monitored for contamination from an old landfill and industrial hazardous waste dumpsites.

In implementing the $3 million plan to upgrade the outdated reverse-osmosis water-treatment facility, the city plans to retire several of those shallow wells at the western end of the airport closest to the old Gifford dump, and instead draw more water from deeper wells that tap into the Floridan Aquifer.

“This is just a first step in a multi-year project,” Water and Sewer Utilities Director Rob Bolton said of the $72,000 membranes to replace the existing 10-year-old ones.

Bolton said the move is necessary because the Environmental Protection Agency, which currently regulates 91 contaminants in drinking water, plans to get tougher on known carcinogens that form when naturally occurring decomposed organic matter or other elements in water from shallow wells binds with the chlorine used to sanitize the water. The city currently uses a lime-softening method of treating the hard water drained from these shallow wells and then adds chlorine.

“As changes in disinfectant by-product rules take place, the city may exceed certain levels and be forced to report such violations. The expansion of the reverse osmosis (RO) facility will resolve this threat,” Bolton wrote in a memo to the city’s Utility Advisory Commission last month.

Trihalomethanes are one class of these by-products. “Trihalomethanes are a group of chemicals formed as byproducts when chlorine or other disinfectants used to control microbes in drinking water react with naturally occurring organic and inorganic matter in water,” the EPA says. “Trihalomethanes include chloroform, bromodichloromethane, dibromochloromethane and bromoform.”

Another class of contaminants, called haloacetic acids, have also been shown to cause cancer and occur as a result of different types of water disinfection. Once the new regulations are handed down, the EPA said it aims to regulate at least 14 different contaminants, reducing the maximum contaminant level allowed in the drinking water.

The EPA says reverse-osmosis (RO) treatment reduces the incidence of the cancer-causing agents by filtering them out. This process uses pressure to purify water by forcing it through a membrane.

The Indian River County water utility would also be affected by any new EPA rules handed down, but the changes shouldn’t cost county ratepayers anything extra because the county already uses deep wells tapping into the Floridan Aquifer exclusively and treats all of its water by reverse osmosis. This technology was developed in the 1950s by a team which included University of Florida researchers, as a way to desalinize water. It was not used as a large-scale purification method in public water systems until decades later.

The Vero Beach water system has been in place since the mid-1920s, expanding greatly in the 1980s when Vero took on the Shores and south barrier island customers before the county had built its modern water-treatment facility.

The Vero Beach water treatment plant itself won’t need to be expanded, Bolton said, as there is extra space inside for new equipment. But the city would need to purchase, install and test the new water treatment components to more than double Vero’s capacity to treat water by reverse osmosis.

The EPA started laying the groundwork for stricter drinking water standards in 2010, but it will take a few years to change the way the agency examines and rules on contaminants first.

"To confront emerging health threats, strained budgets and increased needs – today’s and tomorrow's drinking water challenges – we must use the law more effectively and promote new technologies," said then EPA Administrator Jackson on March 22, 2010.

The fact that contaminants form in drinking water treated with chlorine do indeed cause cancer has been known by the scientific community for decades. The EPA started regulating these chemicals in 1998, after the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published a study linking ingestion of various chemical byproducts of chlorine water disinfection to cancer.

“The potential risk from MX (3-chloro-4-(dichloromethyl)-5-hydroxy-2(5H)-furanone) in drinking water, as well as the potential risks of water disinfection byproducts that are considered in EPA’s drinking water regulations, must be weighed against the benefits of chlorination as a proven disease prevention strategy,” the Journal said, urging the regulation of these chemicals, but cautioning against the elimination of chlorine from the process altogether.

“Certainly, we expect our drinking water to be clean and safe for public consumption. Stopping water chlorination in the absence of an equally effective disinfection program is not a sensible choice. This approach was unfortunately tried in Peru with devastating results; a cholera epidemic involving 300,000 cases occurred as a consequence of inadequate or no disinfection of drinking water supplies,” the report said.

In the past, the EPA could only address contaminants one chemical or component at a time, meaning stricter standards could get bogged down in many years of bureaucratic red tape. Through reforming the process, the EPA can reduce acceptable levels of whole classes of contaminants of a common origin, such as Trihalomethanes or THMs.

Then EPA Director Jackson said there is a range of chemicals “that have become more prevalent in our products, our water and our bodies in the last 50 years.”

There hasn’t been a major change to drinking water standards since 2001 and regulations have not kept pace with scientific discoveries.

Vero Beach Utility Advisory Commission member Jane Burton, who spent her career working in the public utility business, said during a Sept. 24 meeting she’s seen the new EPA standards and she urged the city to increase its reverse osmosis capacity to improve water quality.

The money spent to increase reverse osmosis capacity would come out of the water and sewer utility’s capital improvement budget as an enterprise fund and would be passed along in the city water rates, either in direct cash expenditures or in payments on debt.

Instead of spending nearly $3 million to upgrade its water treatment facility, city leaders could take another look at merging with the more modern county water system. In 2010, the county offered to buy the city water-sewer system for $24 million, pay off all debt and absorb city customers into the county system at lower county rates – an offer derided as an attempt by the county to “steal” the utility.

Vero Beach, Indian River Shores and the county held joint talks in 2011 and commissioned a consultant to study possible regionalization of water and sewer utilities. In March 2012, after the city still showed no interest in taking the county’s offer, and Indian River Shores signed an agreement to stay with Vero Beach Utilities for another 30 years, County Administrator Joe Baird told city officials the Vero system was so outdated that it was “not worth purchasing.”