The Dade Water Authority's water treatment plant off Highway 136 East is usually locked up tight and carefully guarded from the public eye. But Jeff Pendergrass, the new general manager at Dade's nonprofit water company, wants $586,500 in replacements, repairs and improvements to bring the works up to snuff, and he opened the plant's doors for the rare Aug. 12 tour to demonstrate why.
"It’s kind of a show and tell," said Pendergrass. "We told you what we need and you can see with your own eyes we’re not just inventing it. It’s to educate people and show them what we’re up against."
In fact, the current water treatment plant was built in 1976 around an earlier facility that dates from 1962, and walking through the place the public didn't have to look too hard to see it was crying out for modernization. From obsolete instruments to cracks in walls to letters falling off the sign for emergency equipment next to a tank of poison gas (above), the plant looked seedy and neglected enough to get Pendergrass's point across.
A dozen or so concerned citizens, including one water board member, one member of the local press and two home-schooled children in search of a field trip, showed up to attend the Aug. 12 tour. Pendergrass, accompanied by water treatment plant Frank Hawkins, started the walkthrough at this intake tower on Lookout Creek. The tour then followed the course of water through the plant and into the pumps that force it up Dade's two mountains and into the valley community.
Right off the bat, Pendergrass pointed out one glaring need: A leaf filter at the intake point. In the fall, he said, leaves floating on the creek clog the intake and have to be removed with the basket pictured below, a low-tech affair lowered with
rusty-looking chains into the water. The balcony it is lowered from is open to the air at the opposite end, with no guardrail, so that it still makes The Planet a little sick to remember backing up to get a better camera angle on the basket for this shot.
Pendergrass, who came to Dade Water from an Alabama water facility, said the plants where he worked there were more modern and efficient than Dade's. Considering Alabama ranks 49th in most other categories--"Thank God for Mississippi," said Pendergrass--that gives an idea of the kind of work Dade's water treatment plant needs.
Plant manager Frank Hawkins showed the tourists Dade's deep-water well, which he said
goes down 85 feet under the pump, which is the only part visible. "They built it back in the '70s, hoping they could use it for a water source, but they couldn’t keep the bacteria count down," said Hawkins. "So we have to run it through our plant, and it’s just a supplement for our raw water.”
From both well and creek, the plant may take in a maximum of 3.8 million gallons a day according to its permit with the Georgia Environmental Division. The first step of treating the raw water is mixing it with what Hawkins called alum--aluminum sulfate, it was later qualified--in the antique-looking concrete basin pictured above. Pendergrass said the plant adds only three chemicals to the water: aluminum sulfate, fluoride and chlorine gas.
Next, the water goes through the maze-like series of vats pictured above, not looking particularly reassuring or, frankly, potable. “It may look like a stagnant pond, but there’s actually about 2000 gallons a minute going through there,” said Pendergrass (in foreground, pointing). "We need to get what they call weir action." (Weir means a small dam, though what it means water-treatment-plant-wise The Planet can only speculate.) Upgrading the plant will also mean modernizing its coagulant chemicals, said Pendergrass, which he said engineers have improved dramatically in recent years.
“When we do that, it’ll look much better, but there’ll still be the same basins and mechanical stuff,” said Pendergrass.
At this stage, there are still scuzzy-looking life forms floating in the water. “That’s algae," said Frank Hawkins. "It doesn’t know that it’s not in the creek.” That's because, he said, nothing has been done to the water but adding the alum.
Outside the intake vats, Hawkins opened a console to show the public this instrument--a pH monitor, The Planet understands--that he and Pendergrass describe as obsolete with no possibility of obtaining replacement parts. It will cost $12,000 for a new, modern instrument, they said, but it's something EPD gives them no choice about. “We’re not in trouble for it," said Pendergrass. "I don’t know that they’ve caught it.”
A subsequent stop was the indoor filter room. Pendergrass explained that before 2001, there was no roof here. It's a blessing to have one, he said, because sunshine increases algal growth and make the work of the filters harder.
There are four filter vats--two to Hawkins' left, two to the right--and he explained each had been engineered to handle a million gallons per day. But due to a design flaw--there's not quite enough filter area, apparently--they can handle not 4 million but the peculiar number of 3.8 million gallons mentioned above. This filter area is also on Pendergrass's list of areas that need improvement.
Then ensued a walkthrough of the murky guts of the water treatment plant, a noisy, dark series of rooms, some with water on the floor (below) that Pendergrass said made things look worse than they were.
Many pipes looked elderly and it was hard to imagine that they had ever been any particular color. Some pipes were labeled but the words were upside down.
Pendergrass said his goal is to have all this area--what he calls the "pipe gallery"--given a dose of TLC. “We want it painted, labeled, like wastewater, influent water, backwash water, filtered waste water, and we want directional arrows as to how it flows through the pipes,” he said. He said this is something EPD preaches about at every inspection.
In this labyrinth of pipes Pendergrass pointed out an array of "turbidimeters," another high-priority item on his list of needs. These, like the pH meter, are also obsolete and also vital to operations. Turbidimeters measure clarity of water and Pendergrass described the benefits of having separate ones for various stages of treatment. Otherwise, The Planet can only tell readers that they cost a lot and were a serious challenge at finding out how to spell.
Here is a breakdown of how much Pendergrass estimates will be needed to bring the water company up to standard:
$395,000 for the water treatment plant alone; $71,500 for the water distribution system; and $120,000 for the main office. That's a total of $586,500, and Pendergrass warns that the list will grow as he has more time to spot deficiencies.
That's a lot of money for a little nonprofit water company, but the list is all "one-and done" items, Pendergrass pointed out. It doesn't include changes that will increase costs perpetually going forward, such as getting rid of this creepy tank of poison chlorine gas, one of his short-term goals.
"This is deadly stuff," said Pendergrass. "It’s used for dirty bombs by terrorists. It’s also heavily regulated by the EPA. We’re under the gun for risk management, and the last time we had an inspection we got fined."
Pendergrass wants to change from gas to liquid bleach, which is safer and less regulated. That, he explained, is because it's more diluted, 12.5 percent pure chlorine for liquid as opposed to 99 percent for gas. The one drawback is that it will cost a little more for every gallon of water treated. "It adds 4 or 5 cents per thousand gallons to go to bleach," said Pendergrass, "but it’s not a danger to the employees, to the citizens, to the environment—a lot of plants are going to bleach.”
"This would be linked to a water rate increase," said assistant authority manager Sherri Walker, adding direly: “Coming to a board meeting near you soon.”
That's enough of poison chlorine gas for now, and readers will doubtless hear enough about a water rate hike later. But The Planet cannot leave this subject of the chlorine tank without
showing readers the crack in the wall behind it. Apparently another $12K must go toward shoring up that wall.
The water company's board of directors has a motion on the table to finance Pendergrass's list of improvements, repairs and replacements by cashing in an insurance policy originally bought to finance a $40,000-per-year pension for Doug Anderton, the general manager who retired in June
after nearly five decades at the helm. The board has already funded Anderton's retirement through a CD, and though it would lose a certain percentage by not waiting another 10 years for the full $800,000 value at maturity, the surrender value right now would cover everything Pendergrass has listed so far.
Coming up from the depths, Pendergrass and especially Hawkins (left) were proud to show off the
clean, modern lab where water quality is tested and samples are taken to make sure no choloform or other harmful organisms linger in the treated water. Hawkins said bringing the lab up to EPD standards was no bowl of cherries but, to mix metaphors, that's all water under the bridge now.
As to why the rest of Dade's water treatment plant was left neglected so long, that may have to be water under the bridge, too. Asked why the works weren't upgraded before--the water board does not seem that tight with money, and in fact last year parted with $400,000 to help Dade County buy land for a controversial reservoir on Lookout Creek--new manager Pendergrass could only reply, "That's a good question."
He pointedly offered no criticism of his predecessor but allowed: "I think sometimes water treatment plants may be out of sight and out of mind for folks." That was another reason for the tour, he said.
If you missed it, Pendergrass added that limited showings of the waterworks might be available by arrangement. Meanwhile, the next meeting of the water board is at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 27, at the Dade Administrative Building.
(Photo: The Planet could not end this pictorial without tossing in this shot of the water treatment plant's emergency backup generator. Dade acquired three of them plus a portable one through a FEMA grant after a memorable drinking water failure after the tornadoes of 2011. The generator is large and rectangular and not particularly interesting, but falls within the category of Things Discussed at Length at County Meetings That The Planet Never Gets to See, so it seemed a shame to waste the opportunity.)