PORT RICHEY — When the water flowing from city taps started looking like iced tea, City Manager Tom O'Neill knew he had a costly problem on his hands.
For months, there had been sporadic reports from residents of dirty-looking water coming out of their faucets. But two weeks ago, O'Neill said complaints of brown water started rolling in from all over Port Richey.
Public works officials made some house calls and saw the brown water for themselves. After verifying several complaints, staff went door to door to make spot checks and determine the scope of the problem.
"We were knocking on doors asking people if we could look in their bathtubs to see their water," said Port Richey utility and public works manager Pat Stewart.
And the results weren't good, O'Neill said. Though testing revealed there were no safety issues with regard to bacteria contamination, the city had a widespread problem of unappealing water.
"We had a severe event where the water appeared brown and it's not acceptable," O'Neill said.
City officials are still investigating what caused the problem. In the meantime, they've shut down much of Port Richey's water production and have been buying mass quantities of water from New Port Richey until the problem can be fixed.
About a week and a half ago, O'Neill said, Port Richey shut down four of its seven wells, which tested high for iron, and opened up three existing inter-connections to New Port Richey's system to purchase water. Since then the complaints have stopped and staff has found only clear water in the city, O'Neill said.
The clear water, however, comes at a cost. Officials have not yet calculated how many gallons Port Richey has purchased from New Port Richey and what it's costing, O'Neill said. But he estimated the Port Richey wells, which normally produce 85 to 90 percent of the city's water, are providing just 30 to 35 percent now.
"It's not about cost right now," O'Neill said. "I'm not going to sacrifice quality for quantity. We need to provide the best possible product for our customers and that's what we are going to do."
O'Neill said he is working with city finance director Pam Zeigler to crunch the numbers on where to pull funds from Port Richey's water and sewer fund. He said some capital improvement programs may have to be delayed in order to pay for the additional water, and the hope is some of the cost will offset by the reduced expense of operating the parts of the water plant that are shut down for now.
The city is also going to have to pony up funds for an engineer to conduct an assessment of operations at the plant to find out what is causing the brown water. The engineer will look at everything from its filtration system to the plant's chemical dosing levels, O'Neill said.
He noted a proposed water rate increase, slated to come to the City Council in the coming weeks, could also help cover some of these costs. A study by Burton & Associates found that Port Richey's rate structure is antiquated. The firm proposed an overall increase to users of 3.5 percent each year over the next five years.
The brown water outbreak is just one example of the city's need to bring in more money through its rates to upgrade its aging infrastructure, O'Neill said. On Tuesday evening, the City Council also approved a $359,000 overhaul to upgrade failing pipes in the neighborhoods off Miller's Bayou.
In a little more than a month, crews with Augustine Construction will pull out old asbestos concrete and steel piping and replace them with 5,320 lineal feet of state-of-art PVC and high-density polyethylene pipes. The project — which spans Quest Drive, Tabor Street, Wilkins Street, Berlin Drive and Blue Point Drive — is contracted to take less than 120 days.
Residents in the project area will receive new water main connections to the new pipes at no cost. O'Neill said the project area is in dire need of the upgrades, as the system there has been patched up numerous times, which has been drain on city resources.
City Council members praised the planned upgrades after unanimously approving the funding.
"They've patched that system to the point where there's no other place to patch," council member Terry Rowe said.
The city manager said the project is, however, the last capital improvement that the city's water and sewer fund can absorb without a rate increase.
"This is not something out of the ordinary. Water systems need upgrades. Things get old, things break down," O'Neill said. "There has to be rate increases. It's just the nature of the business."