Overflow crowd demands answers on water quality

A packed house of concerned Melbourne Utilities water customers – many carrying samples of smelly and discolored drinking water – filled the Melbourne City Council chambers July 31 to question local and state officials about the treatment problems caused by a recent toxic blue-green algae bloom in Lake Washington.

The meeting attended by more than 200 was arranged by State Rep. Randy Fine, who had received calls of complaints about poor water quality starting in early July. Records show that Melbourne Utilities received 72 such complaints in the period from July 8 to July 22.

In addition to its city residents, Melbourne Utilities also supplies drinking water to a total of about 170,000 people outside the city, including Melbourne Beach, Indialantic, Indian Harbour Beach, Satellite Beach, Palm Shores, Melbourne Village and parts of unincorporated Brevard south of the Pineda Causeway. Melbourne also sells water to West Melbourne.

Many beachside customers say they continue to experience the smell of mold or chlorine coming from the tap. South Patrick Shores resident and self-described water advocate Sandra Sullivan had a list of questions after having tests of water at her home show signs of coliform bacteria.

“It just seems odd that so many people (living in the Satellite Beach area) have had their water tested and have had positive results,’’ she said.

Fielding the questions for about 90 minutes of the two-hour meeting were Melbourne Utilities Director Ralph Reigelsperger, Director of the Central District for the state Department of Environmental Protection Aaron Watkins, Brevard County Department of Health Environmental Health Supervisor Cynthia Leckey and St. Johns River Water Management District Bureau Chief Dean Dobberfuhl.

All officials assured the crowd that the water was indeed safe to drink and that Lake Washington, as a source for two-thirds of the raw water used by Melbourne Utilities, was being adequately monitored – and treated – for the presence of toxic blue-green algae. Later tests by DEP showed that the levels of the toxics had reduced, partly because of recent rains.

“We’re keeping a very close eye on Lake Washington and pulling samples as needed,” Dobberfuhl said.

Other factors in the bloom that closed the lake to recreation, etc., according to Reigelsperger, included higher-than-normal temperatures early in the year, lower lake levels, seasonal reduction of water demand, and impacts of construction projects at Crane Creek and Pineda.

He said that the bloom was the first such major event in the last 10 years and that Melbourne Utilities never hesitates to issue warnings if there are concerns about water quality.

“The water is tested rigorously and it goes through strict requirements. The water is safe to drink. We have met those requirements,’’ he said.

The city does not test water inside individual homes but was taking information from some residents to investigate further and flush the lines in the area.

Officials said in cases where algae is being treated from a raw water source – as was the case for the Lake Washington bloom – there are guidelines for the water after treatment to make sure it is not over chlorinated.

The comments also included questions about the Lake Washington algal bloom possibly being caused or made worse by the recent change in state laws allowing sewage sludge from South Florida to be spread along the headwaters of the St. Johns River in Brevard County.

Fine suggested in a follow-up Facebook post a third-party test of each of Melbourne Utilities’ 140 neighborhood mains (water lines) to determine “safety not just at the system level, but the neighborhood one as well.”

For daily reports of water quality on the St. Johns River, visit the website Floridadep.gov.

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