The role recycled water could play in Jacksonville’s future

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — JEA, Jacksonville’s community-owned utility, has taken another step in the process to turn wastewater into drinking water.

The utility plans to build a water purification testing facility on Jacksonville’s Southside, in the Deerwood area.

Nearly a million people currently live in Jacksonville, a number that is only expected to increase, and in order to have enough water to go around, highly-treated wastewater may be the solution.

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According to JEA, “As Northeast Florida’s economy and population continue to grow, the aquifer will eventually reach its permitted withdrawal limit. Being fully aware of this, JEA over the years has implemented several conservation efforts and excellent reclaimed water systems, which will continue to be a part of the solution. However, these efforts are not enough.”

At 10776 Burnt Mill Road, just off JTB and Southside Boulevard, there is a piece of land that looks like a dirt field from our Action News Jax Sky Vision Drone; but that nearly 12-acre area is where JEA would like to build a water purification testing facility.

On Friday, Sept. 17, the JEA board of directors gave the green light to make a $3M investment toward that goal.

According to a presentation shown during the board of directors meeting last Friday, the facility would process water that would go back into the city’s reclaimed water system. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, reclaimed water is used for things like irrigation of parks, residential properties, toilet flushing and car washing — but not for drinking. Reclaimed water is another way to describe highly-treated wastewater.

According to JEA’s website, wastewater is collected from a four-county area through more than 3,900 miles of wastewater collection lines, and is treated at 11 wastewater treatment plants.

The water purification testing facility would also include a visitor’s and public outreach center where people could learn about converting wastewater into drinking water.

“That sounds kind of, a little crazy,” said resident Dreico Kelley.

Kelley believes the transparency of a visitor’s center could help more people be open to the idea.

“If they have something where people come and they find out how they’re really going to do it, how everything is really going to take place,” said Kelley.

Andra Jackson says it’s not something he approves of.

“And I wouldn’t want to drink it, unless there’s been some extensive testing over the years to tell you it was safe,” Jackson explained.

He told Cole he lives in Palatka, with well water and a septic system, and he prefers it that way.

“When we lived in the city, we would not drink the city water, because it has a different taste,” said Jackson.

JEA told Action News Jax via email that their water purification program involves “purifying public access reclaimed water into water that will be used to recharge the aquifer.” An aquifer is a rock or sediment that holds groundwater.

The statement went on to explain that reclaimed water is “already used throughout the JEA service area for irrigation of lawns and landscape. The water purification program was selected because it is less complex and costly than other alternative water options such as surface water and desalination. Water purification further purifies available reclaimed water to drinking water quality.”

JEA said the price tag on the facility is an estimated $40 million. Some of that money is expected to cover some of Jackson and Kelley’s concerns, including piloting for research and optimization, a well for aquifer performance testing and staff training facilities.

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JEA told me this could be a reality for their customers within the next decade.

It might be a less familiar idea here, but cities in California, Georgia and Virginia already get their drinking water from treated wastewater.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story mislabeled wastewater as sewer water.

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