City of St. Cloud failed to report drinking water nitrate levels in 2018

The city of St. Cloud neglected to check for two potentially harmful contaminates in its drinking water last year, according to a public notice released by its water department last week.

During 2018, St. Cloud did not monitor for nitrite in its drinking water, and “cannot be sure of the quality of our drinking water during that time,” according to a legal statement published by the city.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) notified St. Cloud that it missed its annual reporting date in January, and the city-owned utility tested for the two contaminates Jan. 17.

Non-detectable levels of nitrate and nitrite were found, meaning it’s safe to drink.

St. Cloud is required to publish a notice of the missed sampling event within three months of when the violations were reported, according to Ashley Gardner, media and external affairs for the FDEP Central District.

Gardner said other than two minor administrative reporting issues last year, this is the only water quality concern St. Cloud has faced.

Things like runoff from fertilizer use, erosion of natural deposits as well as leaking from septic tanks and sewage can contribute to higher nitrate levels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.  

St. Cloud Public Works Director DiAnna Rawleigh said the lapse in testing was a non-intentional human error.

The water department’s compliance officer left last year, and it remains unclear why the testing did not take place, Rawleigh said.

“It (testing) happened 17 days later then it was supposed to, but we’ve implemented a system to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.

St. Cloud has encountered drinking water issues in the past.  

Last year, several residents complained of murky-colored tap water.

City officials blamed it on a diminished polisher, which helps clean the water, at one of the city’s treatment plants. Issues with the resin used to filter out organic materials were also cited.  

Over the last year, Rawleigh has been working with employees and contractors from U.S. Water – a water plant management company – to troubleshoot inefficiencies at the city’s three water plants.

“We knew the city needed a new polisher, but I wanted to look at the entire system from all angles,” said Rawleigh, who has a background in engineering and has held her current position for a little over a year. “I didn’t want to get a new polisher in place and something else go wrong.”

The answer seemed to lie in tweaking variables at the plants like input levels, conducting a deep clean of machinery and prioritizing repairs and maintenance.

The efforts seem successful, with brown water complaints all but dried up since November.

“We said we were going to do certain things and we did them and it works,” Rawleigh said.

A new $1.5 million steel polisher is still being built for St. Cloud, and should be installed over the summer.

More people working at the plants is another area Rawleigh said needed to be addressed.

Last month, the public works director went before St. Cloud City Council seeking approval for three contract workers from U.S. Water to fill needed positions in the city’s plants.

Rawleigh said she went with contract workers – for now – to see if the additional workload is temporary or chronic.

If it’s chronic, the city will look at hiring its own employees, she said.

“I felt like we needed more people actually doing, touching, watching operations in the plant,” said Rawleigh. “Errors are less likely to happen when there’s more people double checking important aspects of operation.”