Oakland’s Great Green Irrigation Plan
Tuesday, June 22, 2021
Town of Oakland Public Works Director Mike Parker: "It's become more evident that we have to get off drinking water as a source for irrigation and cut back on irrigation where possible."
When Oaklanders turn on their sprinklers to water their gardens and parks, the water that comes out is so clean, they can drink it.
That’s because the Town of Oakland uses its drinking water to irrigate.
Town Manager Steve Koontz estimates that 50 percent of the water that the town pulls from the aquifer goes to irrigation. That amount can fluctuate with the season, according to Mike Parker, the town’s public works director. Last month, for instance, 43 percent of the town’s 27 million gallons of water was used for irrigation, Parker says.
It’s not an uncommon practice to irrigate with drinking water, say, when a community’s needs for reclaimed water (treated or cleaned-up wastewater or sewage) outstrip its supply. Or when there’s no reclaimed water to be had. But it’s not optimal. Something the town leaders are keenly aware of.
“If you go back 30, 35 years ago, drinking water and irrigation were hand in hand; they came from the same pipe. Some people used a hose, some people used an irrigation system,” says Parker. “But as water has become more scarce and there’s a lot more emphasis on conservation, we’ve switched gears. It’s become more evident that we have to get off of drinking water as a source for irrigation and cut back on irrigation where possible.”
Ideally, Oakland would irrigate with reclaimed water. But until recently, the tiny town of just over 3,000 was completely on septic tanks. A condition of its now seven-year-old contract with the city of Clermont to process its sewage at the city's sewage treatment plant is that Clermont keeps the reclaimed water for its own use. So Oakland is left with none to use for its own lawns and flower beds.
“Clermont absolutely would not allow us to have the reclaimed water back,” says Parker. “We put it in our draft local agreement twice. The second time, they said, in a nutshell, If you leave it in, you have no deal. We did not have a choice, and they knew that. But you play the hand you’re dealt.”
Oakland began looking for alternative irrigation sources long before the town inked its Clermont agreement, giving up its reclaim water rights. Their search stretches back to 2006 when that year’s consumptive use permit — which dictates how much of the hundreds of millions of gallons of water taken each day from Florida’s aquifer Oakland is entitled to — came with a stipulation that the town’s leaders look for an alternative irrigation source.
There was no specific deadline, says Parker, but town officials took that as an indication that the St. Johns River Water Management District's conservation efforts were getting serious. When its 2017 permit mandated that the town switch to an alternative irrigation source or face heightened scrutiny with future permits (the next one renews in 2037), which could result in fines or a consent order to force compliance, the town stepped up its efforts.
There were a few exploratory projects. “None of them made an impact,” Parker says. “It was small amounts of water, here and there. It didn’t make sense.”
Then they found something that did make sense: collecting and treating storm water through a process called storm water harvesting. “We’re sandwiched between two of Central Florida’s largest lakes, John’s Lake and Lake Apopka. Storm water capture and treatment was just a no-brainer,” says Parker.
And suddenly the Town of Oakland got dealt the ace-high straight of poker hands.
At the time, MI Homes was starting to develop the Hull Island subdivision by Lake Apopka. When the builder submitted the plans for the property, Parker realized the town owned half of a storm canal. Parker had been eyeing that particular canal as the solution to the town’s irrigation problems for 18 months. Parker was already envisioning building the storm water treatment plant across the street and was working on a permit request to the state to get access to the canal when the builder’s plans came through.
“We thought, Was this a mistake or what? We thought the HOA [homeowners’ association] was going to own that canal,” Parker says.
He made a call to a guy he knew at MI Homes to check it out. “They said, No, we plan on turning that over to the town.”
Oakland would own the entire canal. With the deed of ownership, a good portion of Oakland's irrigation headaches would evaporate.
“I didn’t say anything,” says Parker. “We just let that go through, and Bam! That was it! We just ran with it. It was just amazing. It just fell into place.”
The town put $100,000 into this year’s budget for engineers to scope out how much a storm water treatment plant would cost to construct, sketching out the plans to make the project a reality. Together with the infrastructure necessary to connect a separate irrigation network, the entire project is estimated to cost $3.2 million and take two to three years to complete. Parker expects to start construction of the plant off Hull Drive within 24 to 36 months. Once the plant is up and running, the plant will remove particulate matter from storm water using a membrane filtration system, then treat it with chlorine to kill any lingering pathogens to make the water safe for irrigation.
In anticipation of eventually having a separate supply of water for irrigation, new housing subdivisions have been required to have dual water piping — one for drinking water,; one for irrigation — since 2016. So far it's just Oakland Trails, Longleaf and Hull Island. Once the system is operational, Kooztz says the neighborhoods will be connected "one by one." Hull Island is first on the list.
The town still needs to do a rate study to determine how much irrigating with storm water will cost consumers, but Koontz estimates that it will net out about the same as what residents pay now.
“When people think alternative water, sometimes the expectations are that it’s cheaper water for irrigation,” he says. “But because of the large investment that’s made — you still have to pump it, process it, there’s infrastructure — it’s not necessarily going to be a cheaper water supply. It’s just more environmentally friendly than having to use potable water. It takes the pressure off of what we’re pulling from the aquifer.”
When all is said and done, Oakland’s storm water plan may even make Lake Apopka a little bit cleaner.
“We’re filtering and cleaning up storm water that would have gone straight into the canal and into Lake Apopka,” Koontz explains. “Once it’s used for irrigation, it’s pumped through the ground where it gets filtered some more. Then it goes back to Lake Apopka. So in a very small sense, we’re helping with the continued cleanup of Lake Apopka. It’s a small sense, but it does help.”