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JEA Pilot Purifying Wastewater For Drinking, But It Won’t Reach Your Sink Without State Approval

JEA employee at the utility's Mandarin Wastewater Plant.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Listen to the story airing on 89.9 WJCT-FM

JEA is in the first phase of a pilot program converting treated wastewater — that once ran through city sewers — into drinking water that flows out of your tap. The three-phase project began in 2016 because technology for these treatments has become increasingly affordable.

Environmentalists helped kill a bill that would have allowed the practice of reclaiming so-called “gray water” for consumption.

But JEA directors heading up the project say the practice is rather uncontroversial.

It could be at least a decade before the rushing sewage being treated at the Mandarin wastewater plant ever makes it to your sink. JEA water scientists are testing two conversion methods already employed in places as far away as Singapore and as close as California.

The most affordable method uses a biological agent to treat the water, the second more expensive, yet less energy intensive, option uses a membrane filter that leaves behind a disposable byproduct.

State lawmakers earlier this year passed a bill that would’ve created a framework for allowing treated wastewater into the drinking supply, but under pressure from environmentalists, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it. Groups like the the Clean Water Network of Florida and the Sierra Club of Florida argued the bill would not have mandated the treated water be clean enough.

JEA water policy specialist Tom Bartol said under this local pilot, the water would go through at least three levels of treatment before it reaches your glass.

“This is water that’s already highly-treated reclaimed water. It’s treated through these processes, it’s monitored, it’s put through the aquifer and it comes out again and then gets treated,” he said.

JEA is using water that’s already been treated and deemed safe for irrigation and other industrial uses.

Still, that isn’t the only criticism for these kinds of programs. Those same environmentalists also see these programs as emboldening water wasters. Instead, they argue, people should use less water.

But JEA environment chief Paul Steinbrecher said Northeast Florida residents are already some of the most efficient in the state.

“Of course it's important to have conservation, but conservation alone won’t be efficient. As an example, JEA customers are some of the most efficient in the state of Florida already,” he said. “So, our customers have done a great job with that, but as a community grows, it alone won’t be sufficient.”

Steinbrecher said it’ll be at least another decade before the highly-treated water reaches your tap and that’s only if the state decides to approve a new law allowing for its use.

“The regulatory environment is in fact evolving and being developed, even as we talk. So, I think that’s something that the state of Florida will be looking at in the next two or three years. We’re following that process closely because of course, we would not be doing this until and unless there were all the regulatory approvals that the state would want to put on it,” he said.

Copyright 2020 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Ryan Benk is originally from Miami, Florida and came to Tallahassee to attend Florida State University. He worked on Miami Dade College’s Arts and Literature Magazine- Miamibiance Magazine and has published poetry and a short film called “ The Writer.” He’s currently working as the Newsroom’s Researcher while finishing his Creative Writing Bachelor’s Degree at Florida State University. When he’s not tracking down news, Ryan likes watching films, writing fiction and poetry, and exploring Florida.