Drinking water quality problems have resurfaced in western Palm Beach County, where water supply upgrades for Glades communities have already cost the public more than $60 million.
Palm Beach County last week warned Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay residents that coliform bacteria levels in the drinking water exceeded allowable standards.
While the coliform findings weren't bad enough to make the water unsafe to drink, they were another sign of water quality problems plaguing the crumbling, outdated water lines relied on by western communities.
Pumping more water though the western system has helped address the most recent coliform problem.
But the long-term challenge is the projected $100 million cost of replacing damaged waterlines that snake through the towns alongside Lake Okeechobee.
"We are not quite sure why this became an issue," county Water Utilities Department spokesman Robert Nelton said about the recent spike in coliform bacteria in the Glades. "There is a lot of work that needs to be done out there."
The county was required to mail warning notices to Glades residents after failing to meet coliform bacteria standards from April to June.
Coliform bacteria is not considered harmful, but it is monitored as an indicator of more harmful bacteria such as Fecal Coliform and E. Coli bacteria.
Of the about 50 to 70 tests per month for coliform bacteria, health standards allow up to 5 percent to test positive. Palm Beach County exceeded those standards for the western communities by testing positive 17 percent of the time in April, 10.5 percent of the time in May and nearly 15 percent of the time in June.
None of the county's testing showed any of the harmful bacteria that would cause immediate health concerns, according to county Water Utilities Director Bevin Beaudet.
"Flushing" the system by pumping more water though the pipes helped wash away the recent coliform problem and the county is more closely monitoring the troubled areas to make sure it doesn't return.
"We have brought all appropriate resources to bear on this issue and current testing shows that the problem has been resolved," Beaudet wrote in an email Friday to county commissioners. "We are also performing numerous [construction] projects in the area to repair and replace aging pipes, which will greatly improve the system over time."
In 2008, the $60 million Lake Region Water Treatment Plant opened in an effort to help to fix decades of water-quality problems in the three lakeside cities with 35,000 total residents.
The plant was built with a combination of state and local money and was once under the control of the Glades Utility Authority.
Just three years after the plant opened, the county agreed to pay $7 million for four new wells after problems emerged at the plant's wellfield that the Glades Utility Authority could not afford to fix.
Even with the improvements, about 40 percent of the water produced at the plant has failed to get to where it's supposed to go due to the aging pipes.
The economically-struggling Glades communities through the years failed to invest enough in water line maintenance, according to the county.
After taking over Glades water service last year, the county Water Utilities Department has committed to spending $5 million a year on water infrastructure improvements, at least through 2018.
"We are losing a lot of [water] due to breaks in the infrastructure," Nelton said. "It's a recipe for problems."
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