Golf courses, others to see charge for reuse water quadruple

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – The price for treated wastewater just got higher, jumping from 15 cents to 60 cents for 1,000 gallons that will be used for irrigation at golf courses and other large water consumers. Every year after now, the price will increase another 7 cents until it reaches 88 cents in 2014.

The decision came down to a 3-2 split vote, which commissioners Peter O’ Bryan and Joe Flescher voted against, voicing concerns that the county might lose wastewater customers over the higher price tag. “I think jacking up the rate, just because we can, is not good government,” O’ Bryan said, who then suggested a 51-cent rate for the service with a 5-year breakeven point “without gouging the customers.”

“I don’t think this is a matter of jacking up the rate just because we can,” Commissioner Bob Solari countered, explaining that other governments charge well over what is being proposed.

Solari, with support of Commissioner Gary Wheeler, suggested the 60-cent rate and an initial 4-cent annual increase. Wheeler said he’d rather see the increase go higher to help pay off the wastewater’s deficit faster.

“How you price this depends on how you value wastewater,” Solari said, adding that he sees it as a valuable commodity – one that people will pay for.

Living in the City of Vero Beach, he said he had to run a second potable (drinkable) water line to irrigate his lawn at a cost of $3 per 1,000 gallons.

Flescher disagreed, calling the treated water a “near commodity” and explained that if customers don’t take the water from the county, the county would have to find another means to dispose of it.

“We’re recycling water,” he said, noting that the county hasn’t increased its solid waste bills to customers for the recycling service the county provides.

He suggested a 50-cent flat rate for the charge.

Utilities Director Erik Olson explained to the commissioners that the rate of 15 cents per 1,000 gallons has not been changed in the 15 years or so the county has provided reuse water for irrigation.

The system costs more than $350,000 annually and customer fees have not covered the cost. Instead, it is subsidized through other customers.

“It’s a blue light special that doesn’t cover any cost,” the director said.

Flescher raised the issue of possibly hurting businesses that are currently struggling due to the economy and asked that the commission strike a balance between the economy and the environment.

Olson told commissioners that he believes customers might initially drop the service in favor of sinking wells for irrigation, but the well permits will eventually expire, leaving few options other than reuse water.

“It is tough initially, there’s no doubt about it,” Olson said of the higher rates.

He added that the City of Vero Beach already charges 88 cents for non-pressurized wastewater service and $1.06 for pressurized. Even with the higher rates, the city has a waiting list of customers.

However, by increasing the rate and finally bringing the system to the break-even point between costs and recovery, the county would be able to expand reuse water services to more customers, including residential developments.

One such project the utilities department is currently working on is bringing pressurized reuse water service to the barrier island – to John’s Island East. The reuse water would get rid of the need for wells, which have issues with salinity due to the proximity to the ocean.

In time, Olson said, the county might be able to tap into the City of Vero Beach’s system to further expand service.

“We’re opening doors to people who didn’t have that availability” to connect to reuse water, Olson said.

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