MARCO ISLAND — When you turn on a faucet in your home, you expect the water to flow. And it does. You expect it to be clean and drinkable, and it is. But how often do you stop and think about what is involved in getting that water to your glass, your washing machine or your lawn, or removing your sewage?
Marco Islanders connect with their utilities department every time they use a cup of water, even if the only time they give it much thought is when they pay their utility bill. The massive system of pipes, valves and sensors stretch throughout the island and miles away. As city manager Dr. Jim Riviere pointed out, the cost for the utilities department is as much as all other city operations combined, but the complex web of infrastructure that keeps the water flowing reliably operates out of sight and, in most cases, out of mind.
The headquarters for Marco Island Utilities is at the North Water Treatment Plant, behind a chain link fence topped with barbed wire and a remote controlled gate, off of Elkcam Circle. If the expenditures involved in utility operations are massive, it isn’t because the department has built itself a Taj Mahal.
Utilities General Manager Jeff Poteet’s office is in a doublewide trailer, one of three within the sprawling complex of tanks, pumps and treatment equipment. The carpet is tattered and mud-stained, with racks of engineering drawings, mismatched furniture and ancient, scuffed chairs around a nondescript table.
Marco Island, Poteet explained, has two distinct water sources. The bulk of the water used comes from the Marco Lakes site, a 207 acre facility nine miles north of the island near the corner of U.S. 41 and Collier Blvd., which provides six to eight million gallons per day. This water is fresh, and comes primarily from groundwater infiltration, rainfall that flows into the lakes.
A second source comes from 15 groundwater wells on the island, providing water that starts off quite brackish salty and must be purified via a more expensive reverse osmosis (RO) process. These wells are 500 feet deep, and the water, with total dissolved solids of five to 12 thousand parts per million is much saltier than the 3,000 ppm generally utilized with RO systems.
Marco faces another problem with its water supply. The winter months, when population and demand soar, are also the driest. To deal with this, the utility uses ASR, or aquifer storage and recovery. Seven wells at the Marco Lakes site, extending down 780 feet into the ground, are filled with a billion gallons of water, to draw on during the dry months, as is happening right now. One additional well, to dispose of the salty wastewater from the RO plant, goes down 3,300 feet, over 3/5 of a mile.
“You won’t see that water for 10,000 to 15,000 years,” said Poteet. There is no gravity flow on the flat island, with all movement of water accomplished through the use of massive pumps. In one room at the North plant the city also has a South plant off Lily Court three 200 horsepower vertical turbine pumps make a continual whine. And what if LCEC loses electric power? Do the taps run dry?
“We can’t have that,” said Poteet, indicating one building filled with a backup generator. “We run that four times a month, under load,” to ensure the flow will continue.
One further issue is where to put all the storage tanks, settling ponds, filters and other equipment, on an island where space is at a premium. Looking at the layout at the North plant, the components seem as crammed in as the innards of an outboard engine or a laptop computer. On the ground, the 10.76-acre North plant is a jumble of valves, color-coded piping, filters, switches and control stations.
“Engineers look at this and say, ‘How did you get that much stuff in this footprint?” said Bruce Weinstein, senior project manager. “We have one of the most technologically advanced water systems in the world.” The challenge comes, said Poteet, when they have to upgrade the system, while keeping it in operation, which is currently going on with the installation of a new RO system that is taking the island’s water, already three times cleaner than state standards, and improving it by a factor of 10. Water quality is checked continually.
Weinstein, who has a Ph.D., is a tremendous asset to the department, said Poteet, who collaborated on a recent article in Florida Water Resources Journal’s March issue with him and two additional co-authors. Riviere said the same thing about Poteet.
“He is one of our rising stars,” said the city manager. “Jeff started out in an hourly position, and worked his way all the way up to general manager and that’s kind of hard to do these days. He completed his undergraduate degree (at the University of South Florida), and earned an MBA from Hodges (University).” Poteet was elected president of the Florida Water & Pollution Control Association in November.
Marco’s Water and Sewer Dept. has 74 employees, and 716,613 feet, or over135 miles, of water mains. Poteet said that while the utility budget is $27 million, that includes paying down the debt for buying the system, which otherwise would have been operated for profit by some municipalities in the Panhandle. Operating expenses are “only” $10 to $11 million.
Another time, said Poteet, he would be happy to detail the “much more exciting” wastewater side of the system.