Tired of hearing and talking about refined wastewater as a possible future source of drinking water, the Volusia County Council Oct. 18 effectively banned further discussion of the topic — at least until after the election and the seating of a new council.
The debate leading up to the vote — which left County Chair Jeff Brower as the lone dissenter — was spirited, as each side claimed to have the truth and the facts of the matter on its side.
“The Florida Legislature says it is coming,” Brower insisted.
“Nobody’s talking about this,” countered Council Member at Large Ben Johnson.
At Brower’s urging, the subject came to the fore once again, as he called upon his colleagues to join him in heading off policies or actions that could make toilet-to-tap water a reality in Volusia County — at least in the unincorporated areas. Brower referred anew to a seven-page report prepared by County Attorney Michael Dyer and Senior Assistant County Attorney Paola Soria and dated Aug. 15, 2022.
That memorandum highlighted the legal issues surrounding the possible use of wastewater as a source of alternative water supply. The gist of the document appears on its first page:
“State law appears to preempt local governments from prohibiting potable water reuse in many areas. State law provides that the use of potable reuse water may not be excluded from regional water supply planning. Recently, the Florida Legislature passed a law (SB 64 — 2021) that requires local governments to authorize potable reuse water graywater technology under specific circumstances. It appears that the County could prohibit blackwater technology within its utility service area but could not do so outside its service area.”
For those not acquainted with the terms, graywater refers to waste from baths, lavatories, laundry and sinks, except for kitchen sinks. Blackwater is actual sewage, along with waste from kitchen drains.
“Both types,” the report further notes, “once treated, are considered reclaimed water for use as alternative water supplies.”
Quoting from the Dyer-Soria report, Brower urged the council to formulate a local policy to protect at least some Volusians from being forced to ingest treated wastewater.
“How good would that be for a tourist-based economy? Come to Volusia County where we drink toilet to tap?” he asked his colleagues.
Brower added the county should promote its clean water to attract visitors and businesses.
“It would be good for our economy, … with the companies that are already here that depend on a really high quality of water,” he said.
Revisiting the issue that the County Council had discussed Aug. 16 irked Johnson.
“I believe we’re trying to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Nobody’s talking about this. The first time we ever heard about this was, Mr. Brower, you bringing it up. We discussed this in August, and it did not get a second,” Johnson told Brower and the others at the dais.
“At the moment, I don’t know anywhere in Florida that’s doing it. We’re regulated all the way around. I’m going to make a motion that we not address this issue again as long as this Council is sitting,” Johnson said.
Council Member Fred Lowry quickly seconded Johnson’s motion.
Johnson’s remarks got Brower’s attention.
“You didn’t listen to what I just read. The Florida Legislature says it is coming. No, it’s not here — that’s the time to work on something. That’s the time to pre-empt something,” Brower told Johnson.
“It can come up after the first of the year,” Johnson said, explaining his motion.
For his part, Johnson was elected to the council in 2018 and is now finishing his four-year term. The four-term Volusia County sheriff chose not to run for re-election to the County Council.
“I will bring it up again,” Brower promised.
At that point, Brower asked Dyer if the council can legally bar its members from raising matters for discussion or action.
“The council can decide whether to take up an issue,” Dyer advised.
Council Vice Chair Barb Girtman sided with Johnson.
“There is no urgency to this issue at this time,” she told Brower. “I’m not sure why you brought it back at this time.”
“I think it is critical,” Brower replied.
The debate ended with a 4-1 vote. Council Member Billie Wheeler joined Johnson, Lowry and Girtman to form the lopsided majority, leaving Brower alone in his opposition to the toilet-to-tap controversy. Council Members Heather Post and Danny Robins were absent.
Come January, there will be a newly constituted Volusia County Council in place. Besides Johnson, Council Members Lowry, Post and Wheeler will be gone, and new members will take their places. Council Members Girtman and Robins, meanwhile, are seeking fresh mandates from the voters in their districts, 1 and 3, respectively.
Brower is a member of the seven-member governing body above the political fray this year. Elected countywide in 2020, Brower was not subject to the shortened terms of district council members, whose electoral zones were changed by reapportionment following the national census.