Is the Water in Delray Safe to Drink?
Yes, it is, for now -- as long as the City remedies another problem it has had over the past decade.
"Lack of institutional control, which is failure to have appropriate resources, funding, oversight, policies and internal expertise in place to properly manage the utility system". This ultimately "could be construed" to have led to the contamination of drinking water in Delray Beach, according to an October 2020 investigative Report by Public Utilities and Management Services, Inc.
That, in turn, led the Florida Department of Health to fine the City of Delray Beach $1,021,194, which includes investigation costs incurred by the State. The fine, according to a presentation by Delray's Financial officer on February 1, 2022, was paid out of the City's Water and Sewer fund late in the fall of 2021 and will be accounted for under "Aid and Grants". The hope, earlier expressed by City Attorney Lynn Gelin, that the City's Insurance carrier would write the check did not pan out leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.
Lack of institutional control starts at the top, and trickles down from there. And the revolving door of City Managers likely has a lot to do with what happened at the Water and Sewer Department -- particularly given the speed at which City Managers came and went, leaving little time for thorough and consistent oversight to ensure that the Water and Sewer Department was being run well.
Between 2013 and 2021, Delray has had five Interim City Managers sandwiched in between four newly hired City Managers, all responsible for overseeing the City's operations, including the Water and Sewer Department. The last two, Mark Lauzier and George Gretsas, were each hired and fired by the City Commission between November 2017 and October 2020. Both had contentious relationships with Mayor Petrolia who began her first term in 2017 after serving on the City Commission since 2013.
It was only a matter of time before something would happen to bring this "lack of institutional control" to light and in November 2018, it did.
In early 2018, the Water and Sewer Department began its final phase of connecting reclaimed water to residential homes for landscape irrigation in Area12C, the southern end of the Barrier Island, a program that began on the island in 2010. On November 19, the department received several complaints from residents about the color of drinking water. Initial testing showed no problem at that time.
But in early December more complaints came in. Retesting revealed a "possible cross connection" between the area’s drinking and reclaimed irrigation water which could have contaminated Area12C drinking water. Now people were complaining that the water was making them sick. A Code Red Emergency was declared, and a boil water notice issued. It was lifted a few days later.
The Florida Department of Health (FDOH) was notified, and corrective measures were taken after the City met with FDOH to resolve the issue -- one of them being to ensure that City Utility staff would make inspections on reclaimed water connections. The department had no specific person responsible for inspections, according to the Water Report.
The Mayor and Commissioners were made aware of the problem at the time of the boil water notice and updated briefly by City Manager Lauzier at a Commission meeting on 12/11/2018, although it is unclear how detailed the briefing was -- or if anyone asked further questions. The reclaimed water connections to the area resumed. On March 1, 2019, Lauzier was fired for causes unrelated to the water issue and Fire Chief De Jesus was made Interim City Manager. It appears from the Water Report that the Assistant City Manager, with advice from City Attorney Gelin, assumed much of the oversight responsibility at that time.
At this point, it appears lack of institutional control on the city's part and bureaucratic “slow walking” by the State seemed to collide. The Assistant City Manager in May determined that the city did not have to report illnesses to FDOH unverified by hospital records. The State later informed the City that regulations stipulated that illness complaints should have been reported regardless of medical records backup.
There didn’t appear to be any correspondence between the city and FDOH from late December 2018 and January 2, 2020. However, according to the Water Report, “New Environmental Health Director (for FDOH) Rafael Reyes noted that data was submitted to the Health Department in mid-2019 indicating that people may have been made ill, and that multiple cross-connections may have existed." The January 2 correspondence was apparently instigated by a complaint made to the FDOH by a resident that she was not adequately informed about the drinking water contamination problems.
On January 30, 2020, Interim City Manager De Jesus received an email that FDOH wanted to see the City's report on the 2018 incident. A meeting was held between the City and FDOH on February 3, 2020. FDOH directed Delray to issue a city-wide boil water notice having determined the existence of cross connections between the city's reclaimed water and its drinking water.
During that time, George Gretsas was just assuming his duties as Delray's next new City Manager. According to the Palm Beach Post, he discussed the water situation and received a text from Mayor Petrolia on February 4, 2020: "Whatever goes out, needs to include information that doesn’t implicate this administration. It’s news to all of us. That didn’t happen on our watch. We are going to be creamed otherwise.”
Petrolia, at the time, was actively supporting the candidacy of now City Commissioner Casale, elected in March of that year. Casale and was one of three, along with Petrolia and Commissioner Johnson, who voted to suspend Gretsas in June of 2020, without having the full report on his alleged misdeeds. Commissioners Frankel and Boylston voted no citing the need to have the full report before they took action.
According to the Water Report, "While FDOH wanted Delray to issue a city-wide boil water notice, Mr. Gretsas was able to convince Mr. Reyes (FDOH) not to take this drastic step by shutting off the city's reclaimed water system and checking connections on the barrier island...Mr. Reyes also asked for information on all the city's old back flow devices (the valves that prevent reclaimed water from crossing into drinking water)." Mr. Gretsas replied that the valve replacements were on track, although there appeared to be no records showing a specific date of connection. The valves were replaced or, in some cases, newly installed and on May 19, 2020, FDOH allowed the city to "activate" reclaimed water service to residences on the barrier that had remained shut off due to not having new valves.
During the months prior to his suspension, Gretsas also discovered that there were no records on cleaning Delray's water storage tanks, one of which seemed to have gone uncleaned for decades, given two yards of silt found in its tank. He instituted changes in management at the Utilities Department and hired Hassan Hadjimiry as its new Utilities Director. Hadjimiry started the job in late June 2020, the same month Gretsas was suspended in the 3-2 Commission vote, and the Utility Department fell under the supervision of Interim City Manager Alvarez.
It appears that all is now on track, even though Hadjimiry has a new boss, City Manager Terrance Moore, who was hired in August 2021. Hadjimiry has instituted and updated multiple protocols since his hiring, and water quality and storage issues seem to be under control. He will be integral to implementing the construction of a new state of the art water treatment plant and replacing old water meters. The city's current plant is one of the oldest in Florida and the estimated cost of the new one by the time of completion is between $105 to $125 million. According to Moore, the City hopes to finance it with a revenue bond "in the next few months."
Will residents see higher water and sewer rates? Yes, perhaps increasing up to 40% by 2026, according to a Commission Workshop presentation on January 11, 2022. This despite the nearly $11million windfall Delray will receive from the Federal American Rescue Plan for water infrastructure around the country.
In a WPTV5 interview on March 5, 2021, "Race for Delray Beach Mayor: Meet the Incumbent", Anchor Mark Kelly reported, "Petrolia says the valve problem with the reclaimed water has been daunting but is now fixed and considered safe by state regulators. Still, the political attacks keep coming."
"This is the issue that my opponent has chosen to pick up and run with," Petrolia told his viewers. "That's her political football. But the majority of the constituency is not concerned about the water."
Petrolia was re-elected Mayor in March 2021 by a slim margin of 365 votes.
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