Well Protection Program In Danger As Cities Opt Out

The Palm Beach County Commission postponed action last week on a well field protection ordinance. At a March 27 workshop, the measure was pushed back 60 days so officials can try to get municipalities that have dropped out of the program back on board.

Since 80 percent of Palm Beach County’s potable water comes from groundwater sources, the county’s Environmental Resources Management department is tasked with protecting well fields from the risk of contamination.

ERM representative Robert Robbins said that the department would not have adequate financing for its well field protection program in 2012, and the service would be provided only to municipalities that have agreed to pay into the plan.

“As a result, we had to do some revisions of our well field map,” Robbins said. “We were surprised after we did our budget, thinking that we had sufficient utilities participating, [but] many of the utilities are not participating, even some of those that we thought were likely to participate.”

As a result, only about half of the groundwater that is drawn from the county would be covered by the well field cost-share program. Palm Beach County receives about $350,000 under the cost-share program, which covers about 2.5 full-time employee equivalents, compared to six previously. “We have already let staff go since we prepared the 2012 budget,” Robbins said.

Comparing Palm Beach County’s plan to other counties, Robbins said that Miami-Dade County has fewer large-capacity wells in its system. Its metropolitan system of government allows it to simply impose a surcharge to finance well field protection.

Robbins said the primary purpose of the well field protection plan is to monitor businesses near wellheads that could store or deal with contaminating chemicals. Some municipalities do not have such businesses around their wellheads and have decided that they can monitor the wellheads themselves, he said.

However, Robbins said he was surprised that Riviera Beach and Mangonia Park, which have many businesses around their wellheads, opted out of the county’s system. Wellington’s utility service also opted out.

Robbins said it is fortunate that some of the larger utilities, such as Palm Beach County Water Utilities, the largest service in the region, as well as utilities in Lake Worth and Delray Beach, are still in the program. Those entities pay the most, and are allowing the program to continue to operate.

County Administrator Robert Weisman said Palm Beach Gardens led the charge not to participate. Commissioner Karen Marcus said individual commissioners might be able to help by reaching out to communities that have elected not to participate.

Robbins said his department has contacted those municipalities many times. “I suspect some are watching today to see what will happen,” he said. “We certainly invited them all to participate.”

Marcus said it would be good to see if the non-participating municipalities are actually initiating a program of their own. “At least we can say they are providing it,” she said. “I don’t understand the foot-dragging.”

Marcus asked what the communities might be waiting for, and Robbins said it could be to see if the county continues its cost-share program or reverts to property taxation.

Weisman pointed out that tapping the county’s property taxes to fund the service would be providing services to municipalities free of charge, which he did not support. “I actually think this is tied somehow to the inspector general funding issue,” Weisman said. “In some people’s minds, it’s part of the overall question of the county trying to push an expenditure down on the city that they don’t want. They would rather do it themselves than participate and pay the county something extra for it.”

Robbins said ERM’s well field protection rules require a 500-foot buffer around wells and restrict certain land uses with the potential to adversely affect groundwater.

Commissioner Priscilla Taylor said she was taken aback that Riviera Beach elected not to participate, with the number of businesses close to wells, some of which have had issues with contamination.

Robbins said the county ordinance had not been in effect when those incidents happened. “As a result from those high-profile contaminations, Riviera Beach had to put in filtration systems for their drinking-water treatment plants,” Robbins said. “Those filtration systems are still in place today. This program is designed to prevent contamination. Their well fields already have filtering. I imagine it’s very high-maintenance filtration.”

Robbins said the liability for municipalities is that if a contaminant leaches into the well field, the municipality might have to shut down that well, at great expense. “When it came time to trace back where the contaminant came from, if we’re not regulating in that neighborhood, we don’t have a list of chemicals in that neighborhood, and it would be harder,” he said.

Weisman said the cost of fixing a well that has become contaminated far exceeds the cost of protecting it. “It is foolish not to do this,” he said. “Perhaps you need to bump this up to a higher political level with the city councils… Surely they are going to come knocking on our door if they have a contamination issue and they can’t deliver water.”

Commission Chair Shelley Vana said she thought the county should find a way to step up and pay the estimated $500,000 for the service. “We have been the victims of cost-shifting from the state and we don’t like it, and I’m sure they look at this as cost shifting from the county, and they don’t like it,” Vana said. “If there are people who want to do their own, fine, but I think we need to step up and do it.”

Commissioner Paulette Burdick favored the cost-sharing, in light of recent water problems that West Palm Beach has had. It is one of the entities that had elected not to participate.

Taylor made a motion to continue the well field protection ordinance even if the county has to pay for it but to try and reach out to the municipalities that opted not to participate.

However, Marcus said she would like 60 days to try to negotiate with the non-participating communities. The commissioners agreed to postpone action until then.