ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — The Orlando Utilities Commission is now sending robocalls to its customers, urging them to conserve water.
It comes after a few days of only a slight reduction in water use. The utility company, which supplies water to homes and businesses in the City of Orlando and unincorporated Orange County, is running low on liquid oxygen. The product is used to clean the utility’s water supply, but it’s also a critical tool for doctors in local hospitals treating an increasing number of COVID-19 patients, most of whom are unvaccinated.
OUC has received three tanks of liquid oxygen this week, but told us seven to 10 loads are needed to maintain current supply.
Investigative reporter Daralene Jones spent some time in unincorporated Orange County to see if residential customers knew about the ask. Gene Hirschfield said he heard about it on Eyewitness News, and immediately turned off his sprinkler system.
“Normally, it’s on twice a week. Thanks to Tom Terry, we had a big rain and the water, the grass is fine,” Hirschfield said.
He is concerned that more people aren’t getting the message.
“I think they know about it, like our neighbors, but I don’t think it’s been pushed enough, if we really have a problem and start seeing the brown water like you showed yesterday, your little bottle of brown water, coming out of our faucets, they’ll know about it,” Hirschfield said.
It’s been four days since the utility asked 140,000 customers to conserve, which equates to about half a million people, and still it’s only seeing slow declines in use.
On Monday when we checked in, the utility saw daily use drop down to about 83 million gallons, by Tuesday it was at 81 million. A robocall is now being sent to customers and an Eyewitness News producer spotted targeted ads on social media apps.
The call states in part, “We still need your help in conserving water, which helps us conserve liquid oxygen, so it goes to patients battling COVID-19 in local hospitals.”
Liquid oxygen is used to treat OUC water once it’s pulled from the Floridan Aquifer. It removes the hydrogen sulfide and eliminates the brown discoloration and rotten egg smell. But it’s being diverted to local hospitals because doctors also use it to treat COVID-19 patients, as they’ve found over time that it’s a better fit to treat patients who are more critically ill. .
Winter Park, like OUC, is asking its residential and commercial customers to conserve water by eliminating lawn irrigation, pressure washing and car washes. It received a partial shipment of liquid oxygen Tuesday and they’ve also made internal adjustments with water pressure, and are working to identify leaks.
“Clearly they have a significant health need for it, I would argue water distribution plants need it as well. They’re a public health entity, but clearly they’re trying, producing it as fast as they can. It’s just a matter of demand exceeding their production,” Winter Park Utilities Director David Zusi said.
Advent Health and Orlando Health are among the largest water consumers, along with the UCF Hotel Venture, Universal, Winter Park Town Center, Rollins College, Winter Park Towers, Orlando Airport and Orange County Public Schools.
An airport spokesperson told us it shut off water fountains in its parking garages and they are exploring other conservation methods that don’t impact operations.
Orlando Health told us in a statement, in part, “Orlando Health will seek to implement a combination of manageable water conservation measures for our health care system. These measures will have minimal impact to the operations of our health system and will be continuously evaluated and adjusted as needed to ensure the best use of our resources according to the needs of our patients.”
Hirschfield said he got the message that conversation must continue, but believes if OUC really wants to conserve more than a drop in the bucket, they’ll need a more heavy handed message.
“I would like to call it OUC Light, there was nothing in there that said there would be penalties, be restrictions, you can’t water between so and so and so and so,” Hirschfield said.
OUC is also reminding customers to make sure their rain sensors are functioning properly to aid in conversation.
©2021 Cox Media Group