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Stop and rest, just don't drink the water

Alligator Alley, no longer a deadly two-lane blacktop across the Everglades, has been upgraded to a four-lane, divided highway, complete with two modern rest areas. Too bad about the water.

Making that scenic, sometime monotonous drive across the famed River of Grass, between Naples and Fort Lauderdale, sometimes calls for a pit stop along the way.

The rest stops, one in Broward County and the other 31 miles to the west in Collier County, offer motorists, passengers and pets alike a place to get out and stretch their legs.

But savvy travelers would do well to exercise caution when looking for water.

Rinsing out coffee cups, fine. Drinking the water, only sometimes.

That's because the rest stops, which cost $50-million to build, have water treatment plants that often break down.

"The Department of Transportation has no problem at all spending the money to get it right," said John George, head of operations in southeast Florida for Azurix North America, the contractor that runs the treatment plants.

At the Collier stop, at mile marker 65, custodial staffers say the drinking water system has been trouble for years, and sometimes is off for weeks at a time.

The rest stop's on-site supervisor, Skeeter Thompson, says the water damages pipes, staining sinks and toilets.

"I don't know what the holdup is," he said.

George, whose southeast division took over responsibility for the Collier stop from the west coast division on July 1, said the Collier stop "will be straightened out within three weeks."

"The main problem with Collier County is mechanical," George said. "A lot of the electrical panels and pumps were just not in good shape."

At the Broward County stop at mile marker 34, George says the problem stems from frequent power outages, usually caused by lightning.

Once the power goes out, even briefly, water pressure starts dropping, often falling to a level that allows infiltration into the water system from outside sources.

Because Florida law requires drinking water be tested and found clean two days running before warning signs can come down, staff at the Broward rest area say they have to keep signs up several days each month.

On Friday, the water coolers were running, though signs warning against drinking the water were still posted.

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