It Was No Surprise: The South Walton Utility Company Fully Expected Stateswide Accolades

The limestone filtering qualities of the Floridan aquifer make drinking water processing easy for South Walton Utility Company.

It Was No Surprise: The South Walton Utility Company Fully Expected Stateswide Accolades

The Goldsby Road pumping station at South Walton Utility Co.

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The water treatment professionals at South Walton Utility Co. were grateful to win a 2021 Drinking Water Treatment Plant Award from Florida Department of Environmental Protection for medium-size community systems.

But they weren’t surprised: Over the years the utility has won many awards and much praise for the quality of its drinking water. That’s partly because the utility, in Miramar Beach, draws most of its water from the Floridan Aquifer, whose limestone composition does an incredible job of filtering out debris and impurities.

“In fact, the water we get from the aquifer is of such high quality that all we have to do is chlorination,” says Joe Ream, water and wastewater director for the utility. “It doesn’t have to be treated in any other way, aside from disinfection.”

Alicia Keeter, general manager, observes, “The aquifer water even has naturally occurring fluoride. So we’re blessed in having Mother Nature do most of our job for us. As operators and keepers of this drinking water system, we maintain very high standards in maintenance, upkeep and rehabilitation when necessary, to complete the process.

“We also have a great team of operators who take their work seriously on testing, treatment, flushing, following all the rules and regulations as best we can to the letter.”

NO FREE RIDE

Launched in 1968 to serve just 100 water and wastewater customers, South Walton Utility Co. started with one well tapping the Floridan Aquifer. As its membership base and reach expanded, so did the utility’s capacity, with the addition of coastal wells that provided water requiring conventional filtration and processing. It now serves 26,035 customers in 11.2 square miles of Okaloosa and Walton counties in Northwest Florida, delivering on average 6.6 mgd through 200 miles of water mains.

“Today, we have six coastal wells, which are considered to be water plants because they have chlorination systems on site,” says Ream. Their outputs are pumped to two 2-million-gallon central concrete ground storage tanks. There the water is treated and sent to the utility’s coastal service area, along with the water drawn from the aquifer.

Each coastal water plant is housed in a structure enclosing a 600-foot-deep well shaft, with a US Motors submersible pump (Nidec) suspended at the 200-foot level. As the water is drawn from the well, the three-stage pump sends it to the storage tank. This creates a vacuum in the system, which draws chlorine out of a Regal injection system (Chlorinators Incorporated).

“We then test the water daily to make sure the chlorine level is right, adjusting the injection system as needed,” Ream says. “This ensures that the chlorine level is correct across the system as we send the treated water to the distribution system.”

Meanwhile, the clean water from the inland wellfield plant goes into two concrete ground storage tanks with a total capacity of 4.8 million gallons. Booster pumps in the facility send the water to the distribution network.

A sodium hypochlorite system is used to boost the chlorine residual as a polishing step. The water is chlorinated at the inland system before arrival at the pump station. Chlorine is only added, using the injection method, when the water is extracted for distribution. Otherwise, it sits in storage just as Mother Nature made it. 

MAINTENANCE MATTERS

This utility has a staff of 39. “We have a very detailed maintenance program,” says Keeter. “For example, we have a rigorous fire hydrant flushing program to make sure we keep the water flowing throughout the service area. We also have a robust sampling program to make sure the chlorine levels are not too high nor too low.” Sampling is performed at 100 sample collection stations throughout the distribution system.

Ream began his career with the utility as a wastewater trainee in 1995. He immediately began taking classes to become a wastewater operator, obtaining his Class A license in 2001. Shortly thereafter, he transferred to Water Operations and moved up the ranks.

“Jared Duncan is the water operations supervisor with a Level B license who works directly under me,” Ream says. “We also have three Level C water operators: Mark Hurt, Debbie Gavins and Blair McNaughton.”

Ream believes the secret to staff management is ensuring that everyone knows what is happening at the utility and takes a hand in solving problems. “You need to keep them involved in what’s going on and keep them updated on any issues that you’re having,” he says. “It helps that our people know the importance of what we do and care about making sure our water system is working well for our community.”

To boost team members’ commitment, the utility links financial and other incentives to job performance. “We have a goals program to ensure that operators have skin in the game,” Keeter says. “It’s a direct correlation where, if they meet their goals, they are rewarded for it.”

Each quarter, team members have a list of goals they must meet to receive their incentives. Measured activities include fire hydrant maintenance, water loss reduction, conservation programming and others.

“With this type of participation, the employees are intimately familiar with the system and also have a hand in the upkeep of our valuable resource,” says Keeter. “This is a better system than spending money on outside contractors. It encourages our people to take ownership of our water system and take pride in it.”

MEETING CHALLENGES

The benefits of tapping the Floridan Aquifer also pose the greatest challenge to the utility’s future. On the good side, according to National Geographic, the aquifer is an 82,000-square-mile reservoir that holds billions of gallons of freshwater. On the other hand, excessive extraction, rising sea level and growing risks of saltwater intrusion strain the resource.

South Walton Utility is focused on addressing the challenges. “We have an active conservation program that we work to communicate to our customers,” Keeter says. “Our point is to highlight water conservation not just as a money-saver but as the best way to preserve this precious resource because we don’t have an endless supply. Our water rate structure is set up to add financial penalties to discourage people from using excess water.”

Coping with the weather is another challenge. “We live in Hurricane Central,” Keeter laughs. “We are basically a barrier island with just three bridges linking us to the mainland. So we have to make sure that we can sustain our system when the high winds and storm surges come. Our infrastructure has to be robust enough to ride this out. We also have a host of backup generators in place to keep the pumps going during the emergency.

Ream adds, “We really preach to our employees about being prepared for themselves, their families and their houses. They are also aware that even though we are not listed as such, we are first responders. We need to make sure our system is back up and running as soon as possible after bad weather hits. You’re not doing anything in society without water and wastewater treatment up and running.”

SWEET TASTE OF SUCCESS

These requirements and challenges don’t change the fact that drinking water in Miramar Beach tastes especially good. That is because the utility strives to keep chlorine levels as low as safely possible, to minimize any obvious chlorine flavors and smells.

“This is why I like the taste of our water, and we have won several best tasting drinking water awards as a result,” Ream says.

Keeter jokes, “We love our water, but we don’t want everybody to know about it because we don’t want everybody coming to drink it. Maybe we shouldn’t be saying so much about it right now!”

Keeter has another challenge always in mind: “How do we get young people interested in our industry and motivated to want to become the leaders of our workforce for tomorrow? This is a question I constantly ask myself.

“This is a growing and challenging field we all chose, and the rewards of our work are plentiful. Our conversations need to investigate how to tap into the mindset of our up-and-coming youth and show them the benefit to society and themselves that our industry holds.”  



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