A short video produced by the city government shows some rusted and corroded fixtures inside Fort Lauderdale’s 70-year-old water cleaning center, the Fiveash Regional Water Treatment Plant, a functioning but faltering facility. The video was made during a tour of the plant by Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Warren Sturman and City Manager Greg Chavarria. Unseen in the video is a malfunction that startled both the commissioner and the city manager – but failed to faze a man who works at the septuagenarian water plant and has seen it all before.
“At the end of our tour, we saw water gushing out of a pipe, probably a 24-inch pipe,” Chavarria said last February after the video of Fiveash was shown at a meeting of the Fort Lauderdale City Commission. “And the gentleman said, ‘Don’t worry. That happens a lot. So let me just turn the backup pipe on.’ He turned off the [leaking] pipe and turned on the backup one, and the backup started gushing water.”
“I was shocked,” Commissioner Sturman said at the Feb. 7 City Commission meeting as he described the apparent broken pipe during his tour of the water plant, built in 1953. “What was even more shocking was staff’s reaction: Oh, it happens every day.”
The water treatment system at Fiveash is headed for retirement in a couple of years, though the plant’s water distribution pipes will remain in use. By 2026, a new water treatment plant near Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport is expected to replace Fiveash and produce clearer tap water with state-of-the-art nanofiltration technology, instead of the century-old lime softening system housed in Fiveash’s venerable structure.
“This current water treatment plant is on the verge of calamitous failure. The slightest storm could knock it out, and we could be without water for weeks,” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said in an interview at the end of August. “Resilient infrastructure is very important, and we’re making sure this [new] water treatment plant can withstand a Category 5 hurricane.”
Four years ago, it took much less than a hurricane to knock out Fiveash.
On July 17, 2019, a subcontractor working for Florida Power & Light at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport accidentally punctured a pipe carrying raw water from a wellfield west of the airport to the Fiveash plant, shutting off the plant’s production of tap water for most of the day and triggering a 48-hour boil-water notice. Residents were advised to use only boiled tap water or bottled water for drinking, making ice, preparing food, washing dishes and brushing teeth. Restoring the water supply after the accident took longer than initially expected, largely because a city map of Fort Lauderdale’s underground water pipes failed to show the exact location of the nearest valve where crews could turn off the flow of raw water into the broken pipe.
“It took us awhile to find the valve. Shame on us that we didn’t have a complete mapping system for water production and filtration,” Mayor Trantalis said Aug. 31 in an interview. “It was a wakeup call, and we immediately started to create a mapping system of our underground system, water and sewer.”
Five months after that tap water emergency, six sewer pipe breaks spilled about 127 million gallons of wastewater in eastern Fort Lauderdale during December 2019 – another jolting reminder of how fragile the city’s underground infrastructure had become. In a speech the following month, Mayor Trantalis detailed plans by the city to invest $600 million over five years to replace deteriorated pipes in both the sewer and water systems.
In December 2020, the city government had received a joint unsolicited offer from two companies – IDE Technologies, LTD, and Ridgewood Infrastructure LLC – to design and build a water treatment plant to replace Fiveash. Some city officials already were leaning toward replacement rather than renovation of the aging plant. A 2019 study by environmental engineering firm Carollo Engineers confirmed that Fiveash is at the end of its useful life and recommended construction of a new water treatment plant.
Because the initial offer from IDE-Ridgewood was unsolicited, state rules required the city government to analyze the offer while remaining open to others. Unsolicited offers from three other bidders emerged, and after considering all four offers, the City Commission passed a resolution in June 2021 declaring the city government’s intention to enter a public-private partnership with IDE-Ridgewood for the replacement of Fiveash.
Eleven months later, the City Commission agreed in May 2022 to consider construction of a replacement for Fiveash on a city-owned site near Prospect Lake, just west of city-owned Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. The site is within the Prospect Wellfield, where the city owns and operates 25 pumps that draw raw water from the Biscayne Aquifer and push the aquifer’s water eastward for treatment to Fiveash, a plant that spans 1 million square feet just west of I-95 between Oakland Park Boulevard and Commercial Boulevard.
Fiveash is located about five miles from the site of its future replacement near Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, called the Prospect Lake Clean Water Center, where modern nanofiltration technology will improve the clarity of local tap water, which now has a yellow tinge. The beneficiaries of clearer tap water will include residents of Fort Lauderdale as well as some surrounding municipalities that tap into Fort Lauderdale’s water, including Davie, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Oakland Park, Tamarac and Sea Ranch Lakes.
Nanofiltration is the treatment technology built into another Fort Lauderdale water plant that is smaller but newer and farther south than Fiveash. That’s why the Peele-Dixie Water Treatment Plant near the intersection of State Road 7 and Davie Boulevard faces few complaints.
“We do not get complaints about quality of water going through there, because it is nanofiltration,” Fort Lauderdale Public Works Director Alan Dodd said during a virtual town hall meeting last January. “It’s passing through the same pipe distribution system that we have in the rest of the city. But because we’ve improved the plant on the south side, we are not getting the same kind of complaints that we get from residents who live on the north side – where they’re getting water from Fiveash.”
More than 19,600 participants logged onto the virtual town hall meeting last January 18 as city commissioners, city staff and various consultants discussed plans to build the Prospect Lake Clean Water Center and responded to questions from the public about the cost, location and quality of the plant that will replace Fiveash.
Few of the town hall speakers know Fiveash better than George A. Brown, a Hollywood-based associate vice president of civil engineering firm Hazen & Sawyer, which the city government has retained as a consultant to review the technical requirements of the new water treatment plant. Brown has worked with the city on the maintenance of Fiveash since 1999.
Water clarity, of course, came up during the town hall. Brown explained that technicians measure the clarity of water in so-called color units, that less than five color units is invisible to the naked eye, and Fort Lauderdale’s new water treatment plant will match the colorless standard right away.
“From day one, the plant will produce a color under five units at least 90 percent of the time,” Brown said. “Nanofiltration is typically odorless and colorless.” In colorful contrast, Fiveash’s water production averaged 16 color units in 2021. “It’s a very visible color,” he said. “Fiveash cannot meet the city’s goal of clear water.”
The new water plant also is expected to reduce Fort Lauderdale’s exposure to an emerging group of water contaminants known as PFAS (short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which are chemicals used to make, among other products, fabrics that resist water or stains. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they break down slowly and persist in the environment. New government regulations to contain the spread of these substances are imminent, Brown said, yet “Fiveash is ineffective at the removal of PFAS.”
The new Prospect Lake Clean Water Center will treat water with a blend of technologies. The plant will apply nanofiltration to 70 percent of daily capacity, or 35 million gallons of water, while using ion exchange to treat 30 percent of daily capacity, or 15 million gallons. Ion exchange is the best technology for removing PFAS from the water supply, Brown said.
Lime softening, the technological anchor of Fiveash, is a process that softens water with calcium hydroxide, or hydrated lime, by reducing the concentration of calcium and magnesium ions. “That technology has been around since the 1920s,” he said. “The new plant will be nothing like the old.”
IDE and Ridgewood have guaranteed the city that the Prospect Lake Clean Water Center will cost $485 million to construct – $100 million more than the companies’ original estimate of $385 million in 2020. “If the plant costs more, they have to eat that difference,” Fort Lauderdale Assistant City Manager Susan Grant said during the virtual town hall meeting on January 18.
The city government plans to issue bonds to finance 75 percent of the $485 million cost to build the new water treatment plant and 100 percent of related city infrastructure projects. These city projects will include installation of a water transmission line from the new plant to a cluster of distribution pipes at Fiveash, which will continue to distribute water after Fiveash’s lime softening system is mothballed.
The $485 million plant and the related city projects, estimated to cost $181 million, will total an estimated $666 million – and that’s before interest payments on the bond issue, which would bring the grand total to $1.4 billion.
Ratepayers are already seeing the cost of replacing Fiveash in their monthly water bills. Grant said the average monthly water bill is expected to rise from $31 in 2022 (based on annual use of 5,000 gallons) to $75 in 2032.
“Although we understand it has a big impact on rates, the city proposed to finance 75 percent of the project in order to take advantage of our triple-A bond rating as well as our tax-free interest rate,” Grant said. “Last year, in anticipation of this project, the city increased water rates 5 percent more than they otherwise would have, and they have planned for another three or four years after that, to do that extra 5 percent each year.”
About two weeks after Grant and others spoke at the virtual town hall meeting, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission voted on Feb. 7 to direct the city government to formally enter a contract with IDE-Ridgewood to design and construct the Prospect Lake Clean Water Center over a 42-month period.
Prior to the Feb. 7 City Commission meeting, the city government’s Infrastructure Task Force Advisory Committee voted to support the IDE-Ridgewood proposal. “Control of the water remains with the city. The permit to draw the water, the associated wells and pumps are all under the control of the city,” Marilyn Mammano, chair of the advisory committee, said at the commission meeting. “Testing of the finished product is supervised by the city, and any deviation is penalized, in the agreement. Continued failure to meet quality standards is a potential default.”
Impassioned protests against the plan during the decisive City Commission meeting last February came from residents of the Lofts of Palm Aire, a residential community near the site where the new water treatment plant will be built.
“Our property values are going to plummet. … The impact on our neighborhood will be enormous,” said Monica Miller, who has a home on NW 33rd Way. “Fiveash can be renovated, I’m sure.”
Neil Kolner, who lives on NW 33rd Terr., complained that the city rushed into a public-private partnership with IDE and Ridgewood. “This will affect the city for a century. We have waited this long, let’s not – as some have suggested – pull the trigger before we know what we’re stuck with,” Kolner said. “Rushing now will not compensate for past neglect and mismanagement of our water infrastructure.”
However, Mayor Trantalis has a keener sense of urgency. He dismissed a go-slow approach to water infrastructure upgrades in his interview with Fort Lauderdale Magazine at the end of August. For example, he rejected the notion of waiting for state and federal agencies to rule on applications for grants to defray the cost of the water plant replacement project. “While there is infrastructure money at the federal level and the state level, and we do have applications pending, we just need to move forward quickly,” the mayor said. “We should have done this five years ago. The cost of the plant probably would have been half what it is today. … You can only put on so many Band-Aids, as we have done over the last 10 years.”