Right along the Blackwater River in the city of Milton, the wastewater treatment plant that takes care of wastewater and effluent discharge for the city, Whiting Field, all the county’s industrial parks and major economic hubs has chugged along quietly for the past 60-plus years.
The small facility can process up to 2.5 million gallons of wastewater a day. If you’ve ever been in central Santa Rosa County in the past half century and have flushed a toilet, taken a shower, washed your hands or given your dog a bath in the sink, the water has flowed down your drain, through miles of underground pipeline and straight into the Little Wastewater Treatment Plant That Could.
But as the county continues to grow, so, too, does the need for more capacity at the city-operated facility. Milton officials say that the current plant will reach capacity by 2023, which would mean the city and county could no longer approve new developments like neighborhoods, restaurants and stores in the area because there would be nowhere for their toilet water to go once it’s flushed.
“Water is basically the basis for civilization,” said Jesse Medley, the department head of water and wastewater treatment for the city of Milton. “The civilization can’t grow if the water isn’t taken care of.”
That’s why for the better part of the past decade, local and state officials have been working to find a solution to the capacity crisis. The answer is a brand new $28.5 million facility that will break ground in East Milton on Feb. 13, located next to the Blackwater Correctional Facility. Officials hope the first phase of the project will be complete by February 2023 — the exact time they expect the current plant will no longer be able to sustain growth.
The full facility is expected to be complete by 2025. Once it’s complete, officials say it will help support economic and infrastructure growth throughout the state’s eighth-fastest growing county, not just the city of Milton. It will also allow the city to stop discharging its treated effluent straight into the Blackwater River.
“It’s a silver bullet project to me because it affects so many different things, when you look at the impact it will have on Santa Rosa County,” said state Rep. Jayer Williamson, R-Pace. “Even though it’s a city of Milton project, it’s a Santa Rosa County project for the next 50 years … It supplies water for our military mission at Whiting Field, supports economic development for all of our industrial parks and helps clean up effluent in the Blackwater River.”
How your toilet water becomes an ‘all-you-can-eat bug buffet’
As of now, the plant operates at about 80% capacity, treating around 2 million gallons of wastewater a day.
The plant’s max capacity is 2.5 million gallons per day, of which it has already gotten within spitting distance several times.
“Once we average over 90% capacity per day, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is going to start asking about our capacity plans to get a new plant,” said Milton Mayor Heather Lindsay, who made the new treatment plant the cornerstone of her mayoral campaign in in 2018. “We have already committed very close to that amount on projects that haven’t even been constructed yet. Once those projects we’ve already agreed to support are constructed, we’ll be at that point where DEP is going to expect us to have solutions.”
The city’s plant is the first stop for water that has made its way through the underground pipe system after being flushed down a drain. Since more things than water make their through the pipes — like toilet paper, human waste or a toddler’s toy soldier that was “accidentally” flushed down the potty — a complicated series of filters, cement basins and rotating tubs combine with chemical processing to rid the water of excess waste.
The solid waste is sent to the county landfill, while the remaining water is put through a grueling series of chemical reactions to rid it of more than 99% of its toxins so it can be safely discharged into the Blackwater River in accordance with FDEP standards.
“I call this my all-you-can-eat bug buffet,” said Medley with a laugh as he pointed to a lazy river-shaped cement basin full of treated water that starving microscopic bugs were working tirelessly to digest. The bugs work in sync with other chemical processes at the plant to help clean up the water before it’s discharged.
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Operating a wastewater treatment plant is dirty, smelly work, but, just like sanitation services and clean water utilities, treating wastewater is a critical brick in the the foundation of society.
“I give the Boy Scouts tours here sometimes, and they always go, ‘Ew! Gross!’ when they see the toilet paper and stuff being filtered out,” said James Petty, assistant supervisor of water and wastewater treatment. “But I just tell them, I’ve been to other countries where this stuff is going down roads. Would you rather this be going down the street in front of your house or into our filters here at the plant?”
Treated effluent will go underground instead of being sprayed into the Blackwater River
The new wastewater treatment plant in East Milton will ultimately be able to process 8 million gallons a day, though it will come online in phases and will process just 2 million per day at first, in conjunction with the existing treatment plant. The current plant won’t shut down completely until likely 2025, when the new plant is expected to be fully operational.
More than tripling the county’s wastewater capacity will have rippling effects on industry and growth, but, equally as important, it will have a critical impact on the environment.
“It’s important because once we complete this project, there will no longer be any effluent in the Blackwater River,” Lindsay said. “The effluent we release now into the Blackwater is cleaner than required by the DEP, we do a great job. But the goal is to stop discharging it into the river at all.”
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Effluent is the treated water that’s left at the very end of the process, after the “bug buffet” and spinning filtration systems. Medley said he trusts the water so much that he will, and has, taken a drink of it right before it goes into the Blackwater.
The new plant will operate as a Rapid Infiltration Basin System, RIBS for short, which is a fancy way of saying that the effluent will be sent deep into the ground below the plant instead of sprayed into the river.
The city of Milton is under an administrative order from FDEP to remove 50% of the flows from the Blackwater River by the end of 2023, and a full 100% of the flows by the end of 2025.
The plant will also eventually allow some 6,000 households to get off septic tanks and link into the city system, which is good news for the aquifer in East Milton that provides clean drinking water to 86,000 south county residents.
The new plant will also have better technology and be more environmentally friendly and cost effective, said Petty, who said the plant’s aging bones were becoming increasingly costly to keep having to fix. One company, he said, told them it would cost $60,000 alone to just come look at an outdated equipment problem and assess how it would need to be fixed.
“We won’t have all the issues over there that we run into over here,” Petty said, adding that plant operators had to double as mechanics and technicians. “In one of the digester tanks over there, we had a 100-horse power motor go out and we had to have a huge crane come out and lift it up to take it away. We will have better technology at the new plant so that outdated motor won’t even be needed.”
Capacity deadline looms: ‘We see the train coming’
The entire plant will be built in five phases, and the city has already secured full funding for phases 1, 2, 3 and part of phase 5.
The total project cost is estimated to be $28,572,000, although potential phases near the end of the project could tack on as much as $5 million more.
The city is spending $3 million in impact fees and $4 million in reserve funding for the project, and will take out a $10 million loan from the state. The project has also been awarded various grants, including a $6.5 million commitment from the RESTORE council this past July and a $4 million state grant for being “a small disadvantaged community.” The remaining funds have come from legislative appropriations dating back to 2017.
Construction will begin on the first phase of the project Feb. 13. The first phase is expected to be complete and the plant will be placed partially in service by February 2023.
The new Milton plant is part of a broader, region-wide effort to collectively address water capacity concerns so as to allow for future development and growth in Santa Rosa County.
The city of Gulf Breeze, for example, is undertaking a multimillion dollar expansion of its Tiger Point Wastewater Treatment Facility so it can expand reclaimed water use throughout the southern portion of the county.
And the county has already begun a $20 million project alongside Holley-Navarre Water System to redirect effluent currently being discharged into the Santa Rosa Sound to Eglin Air Force Base, as part of another massive RIBS project that will ensure longevity for the region’s wastewater treatment capacity. HNWS is expected to meet capacity for its facilities by Nov. 1, 2022.
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The three huge water projects taking place at the same time, Lindsay said, is evidence of the county’s rapid growth and the need to accommodate future developments. Santa Rosa is expected to continue to welcome new residents, shops, stores and restaurants, but it can’t do so without a proper way to treat its wastewater.
“We see the train coming,” Lindsay said, referring to the train as the deadline for treatment capacity. “The train is scheduled and it’s already on the tracks.”
Williamson, who represents the area in the state Legislature, said the Milton project is important in particular because of the reach that its effects will have on several aspects of Santa Rosa County life.
“This will affect everything in Santa Rosa County, from military missions to economic development, tourism to the environment, and that’s why it’s been so important to me that this project have a lasting impact after I’m gone out of politics and leave this earth,” he said. “This project will be something that, 40, 50, 60 years from now, once it’s up and running, will be a difference maker for my children and hopefully grandchildren, as well as all of Northwest Florida and Santa Rosa County.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8632.