It isn’t easy being green.
And for the Gateway District, years of nonstop growth have made it an increasingly difficult challenge to ensure there’s enough irrigation water to keep everyone’s yards looking green year-round.
With the district nearing its irrigation capacity during certain times each year, and based on the findings from a recent hydraulics study, District Manager Chris Shoemaker and Gateway’s engineering firm Tetra Tech recommended that a new $1.5 million well be built to boost water supply and bolster redundancy.
The recommendation was approved by the Board of Supervisors as part of the fiscal year 2020 budget. The district already has a permit in place for the additional well.
With apologies to any civil engineers out there, here’s some extremely basic “FYI” for the rest of us regarding the community’s irrigation water supply: The GSCDD doesn’t only supply water to Gateway, but also to sections of Pelican Preserve and Arborwood. The district currently operates one deep well that provides lots of water that is of low quality (too much chlorine) for irrigation, and five shallow wells which each supply better quality irrigation water but less of it. What the GSCDD often does is mix the water from the two sources which keeps your lawns and plants happy. The new well that will be built will be a second deeper water well.
Equally (if not more) important as ensuring the district will have all the capacity it needs when the community is fully built out, Shoemaker says having the second well as a back-up to the first is just as strong a consideration here. If the existing well had a major failure of some sort and couldn’t be quickly repaired, Shoemaker rhetorically asked, “What am I supposed to do? Tell the community they can’t have irrigation water for two weeks and everyone’s lawns turn brown?”
The money for the new well will come from the GSCDD’s utility business operation rather than through increased assessments to homeowners.
The GSCDD recently hired an Orlando-based water consultant who worked with the district to establish new water and sewage rates for the community for the first time in decades. While costs did increase somewhat, there are 13 water utilities in Southwest Florida and customers in Gateway still pay the lowest rates in the entire area. As one example, Gateway residents pay about half the cost for irrigation water as someone who lives in the City of Fort Myers.
Two additional improvements to Gateway’s irrigation infrastructure that were approved in the FY2020 budget can be deemed “lessons learned” from Hurricane Irma.
The first is a back-up generator for the irrigation pumps which will ensure those pumps can operate even during a loss of power.
If you’ve lived in Gateway long enough I’m sure you’ve seen irrigation sprinklers shooting out water during a heavy rainstorm. It’s fair to question why in the world sprinklers would run when it’s pouring rain, but the reason is because the district’s reclaimed water storage capacity has been exceeded and they need to get rid of it. During normal rains, this can be done by sending water out through the irrigation system.
But during Irma the power failed. So the pumps couldn’t run. That won’t be an issue once the back-up power generator is installed. The cost? $400,000. Sounds high. And while I admit I’m not exactly an expert on high-end backup generators that are strong enough to power irrigation pumps in a community the size of Gateway, I would imagine they aren’t exactly cheap.
But ensuring the pump systems have power won’t solve everything. As we all saw, during a catastrophic storm or even at a time when water levels in the ponds are extremely high, sending water out through the irrigation system can actually contribute to flooding on Gateway Boulevard and other areas.
So the second idea that came out of post-Irma analysis was to build a system that, when necessary, would pump the district’s excess water in to the FPL easement rather than sending it out through the sprinklers and having it work its ways on to the roads and in to the ponds, potentially contributing to flooding.
The cost of that system, again approved in by the Supervisors in the 2020 budget, will be $850,000.
It’s an expensive upgrade that may or may not be used that often, but at least it will be a tool available to the GSCDD if they must get rid of lots of water but sending it out to the community will only exacerbate existing excess water problems created by storms.
Once again, both of these upgrades will be paid for by the Gateway utility business and not by increasing assessments.
You may have also seen a complaint on social media that the GSCDD was going to build a $3,000,000 system that will store $1,000 worth of water to be funded in fiscal 2023. What the person who wrote the complaint didn’t mention was that only items in fiscal 2020 are committed to when the budget is approved.
In several areas of the budget document it says: “The amounts included in the FY2020 column are the only projects/purchases included in the FY2020 budget. All other columns are only placeholders at this point for potential future projects.”
So the Supervisors approving the fiscal 2020 budget only approves projects and spending listed in that fiscal year. Putting items in future years is the district staff’s way of letting the board and public know that some potential projects could be under consideration for the near or distant future. But there is in no way a commitment to funding or completing any projects listed in future years.
The same individual who made the complaint detailed above also alleged that the GSCDD violated two Florida Statutes in approving the budget, along with suggesting that the GSCDD made an “error” by having commercial users of irrigation water paying a lower rate than residential users.
We reviewed the rate structure for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department and found that they also charged commercial users less than residential customers, so it would seem Gateway’s practice is in line with Miami-Dade’s. For that reason, and since we know the GSCDD hired a professional water rate consultant, we didn’t bother to investigate this specific complaint any further.
Additionally, the GSCDD were guided by two attorneys through the water rate change process, and they feel they’ve done everything by the book.
Shoemaker told the Gateway Sun he invites whatever scrutiny from the State of Florida the complaints may bring.