April 12, 2017
Pipeline to Nowhere? Cape Coral, Fort Myers at impasse over water pipeline
By Frank Bumb
Fort Myers dumps about anywhere from 6 million to 11 million gallons of treated wastewater effluent into the Caloosahatchee River every day. Cape Coral faces a drought that has laid its canals low and could lead to mandatory water use cuts. So why not send some of those millions of gallons from Fort Myers to Cape Coral?
It’s a thought both cities have contemplated for more than six years. A pipeline between the two cities – known as the Fort Myers-Cape Coral Reuse Interconnect Pipeline – would solve several problems.
It would help eliminate Fort Myers’ dumping its treated effluent into the river, a goal Fort Myers City Manager Saeed Kazemi said he wants to accomplish in the next five years. It would give Cape Coral extra water to alleviate its water shortages in dry months in the near term and provide more water for its future growth when it is built out to more than 400,000 people.
What’s holding up a project that is described by numerous officials as a “win-win” for both cities and their residents? It’s not the $13 million price tag for the pipeline from Cape Coral or the $19 million needed to upgrade Fort Myers’ wastewater treatment plants. The question is whether Cape Coral should pay 95 cents per 1,000 gallons daily or $2 per 1,000 gallons daily. Given the sheer amount of water involved, that represents a difference of either $1.4 million annually or $2.9 million annually.tment facility
Cape Coral City Manager John Szerlag said he doesn’t want his residents to have to subsidize the rest of Fort Myers’ water system to purchase the water. Kazemi said he is willing to negotiate below the $2 per 1,000 gallons price point but feels he needs to get enough money to reduce rates for his rate-paying residents to justify doing the project in the first place.
At an impasse, Szerlag sent a letter to Kazemi on March 20, requesting a joint meeting between the two city councils to hash out their differences. But Kazemi said he didn’t understand the purpose of such a meeting.
“My job is to negotiate on behalf of my city and city council,” Kazemi said. “If I call them in to negotiate for me, I’m not doing my job.”
Szerlag said his figure of $0.95 is more than reasonable and was created by Burton and Associates. That company serves as the rate consultant – an expert on how to set a utilities rate prices – for both Fort Myers and Cape Coral.
“I called Andy Burham (with Burton and Associates) and asked Andy to come up with a rate that would be fair to both parties,” Szerlag said. “And what was defined as fair was that Cape Coral residents wouldn’t subsidize Fort Myers ratepayers and vice versa. And that rate was 95 cents per 1,000 gallons.”
Szerlag also pointed to the recent agreement between Cape Coral and the Florida Governmental Utility Authority where the city will pay 25 cents per 1,000 gallons from FGUA. Szerlag said the FGUA system is less expensive because their system already treats the water to a higher standard and would not require costly upgrades.
Kazemi said he knows all about costly upgrades and that his system needs financial relief for its ratepayers.
“I’m just asking for (enough money) for a 1 percent reduction over four years,” Kazemi said. “I’m asking for a little bit more in order to give some break to the city of Fort Myers. Where is the unfairness?”
With Cape Coral facing a record drought that has caused thousands of warnings to residents improperly watering their lawns, the city is desperate for additional sources of water. Besides the pipeline with FGUA, the city is exploring a 1,000-acre reservoir to store water during the wet season to help during the dry season.
"There is no silver bullet to the issue of water supply for Cape Coral," Cape Coral Public Utilities Director Jeff Pearson said. "But this would be a big, big step."
The clock is ticking on getting a deal done for the Fort Myers-Cape Coral pipeline. Cape Coral received a $790,000 grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to design the pipeline. But that grant expires at the end of this year.
“While we can “ask” to redirect the funds, the state usually is not keen on allowing grants to be used for projects other than the one approved,” said Cape Coral Spokeswoman Connie Barron.
Kazemi said, if anything, he feels support for his stance from his council. At a November 28 workshop, Fort Myers City Council roundly endorsed a hard line on getting as much money out of the deal as possible.
“I want the best deal for the constituents of this city and the ratepayers of this city, I don’t care if Cape Coral gets any sugar off of this or not,” Councilman Forrest Banks said. “We got to protect our own.”
The other option for Fort Myers – other than to continue dumping into the river – would be to remove the water through a deep injection well that places the treated effluent more than 2,000 feet below the surface, out of reach of the area’s aquifer.
“We want to be environmentally friendly and use our reuse water for irrigation,” Kazemi said. “We might have other customers interested in this water for reuse, instead of Cape Coral.”
But Kazemi said he would offer a contract to Cape Coral below the $2 per 1,000 gallons.
“I can’t give you an exact figure yet, but it will be below $1.50 (per 1,000 gallons),” Kazemi said.
But whether Cape Coral would accept such an offer is up in the air. Depending on the cities’ negotiations, the interconnect could be a pipe to nowhere.