ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — The clock is ticking.
OUC and Winter Park Utilities are still running short of the liquid oxygen they need to treat their water supply to homes and businesses. They told us they still have about a two-week supply of the product. But without it, residents could be forced to boil their water because the utilities can not guarantee the water would be safe.
The liquid oxygen is being used to help treat critically ill COVID-19 patients in local hospitals, so suppliers are diverting their deliveries.
Both utilities starting sending a new round of robocalls to customers on Wednesday after not experiencing significant water use drops since Friday when they first issued the call for customers to conserve non-essential water use.
Late Wednesday, Tampa Bay Water told its customers that, effective Thursday, it will shift the water treatment process at its Lithia Hydrogen Sulfide Removal Facility due to a lack of liquid oxygen deliveries. Customers will start to experience water that has an odd taste or odor because it will be cleaned with more bleach.
“Water provided to Hillsborough County Public Utilities customers will continue to meet all local, state, and federal regulations for drinking water,” according to a news release from the utility.
About half a million people who live in the city of Orlando and unincorporated Orange County are relying on clean water from OUC. And OUC is still asking customers to conserve water to make sure their system can continue doing just that.
“We would like to see a drop between 25-50%. We haven’t seen that yet, but we have seen a drop, so that is going on the right direction. We need a number of other things to happen, including shipments hopefully hospitalizations decreasing,” OUC Spokesperson Tim Trudell said.
Trudell said the utility has no enforcement authority, so it won’t be able to require customers to implement conservation measures. OUC and Winter Park Utilities are among 17 utilities in the state of Florida that utilize liquid oxygen in some form during their water treatment process.
The utilities pull their water from the lower Floridan aquifer, which requires more extensive cleaning at its plants, which is where the advanced ozone generators come in to clarify the water. Some local utilities, like Orange County, pulls only a portion of their water from the lower Floridian and the remaining from the middle. A spokesperson told us the sole plant in its system that uses liquid oxygen as part of its cleaning process is able to support current demand. But if not, it’s able to divert water from other facilities.
Steven Duranceau is an environmental engineering professor at UCF and believes the expanded use of liquid oxygen in medicine will force utilities to rely 100% on the product to rethink its treatment process.
“Now you have another user that’s unexpected, so moving forward you might see some thinking change,” Duranceau said.
He explained the internal measures utilities can take without compromising their supply, which is what Tampa is doing. Not every system, though, is equipped to make that change.
“If you went into their plant records, you would find that they are trying to give the minimum amount of ozone to the water to meet the regulations without causing a problem in their disinfection process,” Duranceau said.
The top commercial water users for OUC and Winter Park Utilities include Universal City Florida Hotel Venture, Advent Health, Universal City Development Partners, Orlando Health, Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, Hilton, City of Orlando, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Orange County Schools and Marriott, Rollins College Property Management, Winter Park Towers, Vintage Winter Park, Winter Park Town Center and the Alfond Inn.
Advent Health and Orlando Health told us they have stored water in the event of an emergency and the city is forced to issue a boil-water notice, and both said they are conserving as best they can without impacting patient care and hospital operations.
On Tuesday, GOAA said it has already disconnected water fountains in its garages and is exploring other conservation measures that don’t impact operations.
Orange County Public Schools told us it has sent crews to shut off irrigation systems that don’t use reclaimed water. And the City of Orlando will limit irrigation to one day per week at most of its public facilities that use potable water until Sept. 30, though water features will be temporarily shut down at Orwin Manor, Loch Haven, Blue Jacket and Delaney Park fountains. Lake Eola, it said, does not use potable water.
Typically, OUC receives about 10 deliveries of liquid oxygen each week. But for weeks, it’s either missed deliveries or, like this week, only received three tanks. Water use since the request to conserve has dropped from an average of 90 million gallons a day to about 80 million gallons.
Winter Park is in the same boat with only slight reductions.
“We have seen a reduction in water use, which is probably mostly due to some operational changes we have made. We reduced our system pressures over the weekend to increase efficiency,” spokesperson Clarissa Howard said.
Water in the state of Florida is regulated by the Department of Environmental Protection and a spokesperson told us officials are working closely with the utilities that rely on liquid oxygen to make sure they are not doing anything to compromise the safety of the drinking water. In a statement, a spokesperson said, in part:
“It is important to note that there are a variety of methods to safely treat water for consumption, several of which do not require oxygen, such as the use of chlorine. Alternate strategies may also include switching from a surface water source to a well or changing treatment plants. Public drinking water systems are stringently regulated and inspected to ensure compliance with individual permit requirements, and enforcement actions are taken if needed. DEP has not relaxed any of the requirements established under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
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