An investigation targeting former city officials and engineers involved in Winter Springs’ ailing Lake Jesup water plant both intensified and nearly fell apart during the same meeting Monday night.
The water plant, siphoning water along Lake Jesup’s south shore, cost $2.7 million and was supposed to supply water to the city’s reclaimed water system. That system was supposed to increase its capacity to take over landscape irrigation by residents and businesses that had been using potable water for irrigation up to that point.
Due to reduced water in Florida’s underground aquifer, cities across the state have seen their Consumptive Use Permit limits, or CUP limits, gradually reduced, restricting the amount of potable water they’re allowed to pump from the aquifer.
The Lake Jesup water plant has functioned for only 9 months, total, in nearly a decade since it began operation, according to city officials. That lack of extra reclaimed water capacity has put a strain on the city’s attempt to keep its water consumption under the reducing CUP limits.
“It is my goal and I believe that it is the goal of the Commission, to find out what happened and why,” Commissioner Rob Elliott said.
In September the city launched an investigation into who knew what about the plant’s initial design and operations to determine why when the plant began failing it wasn’t adequately repaired. At the most recent meeting, brought on by subpoenas to engineers involved in the project, it quickly came into question whether past city officials or staff ever communicated to the plant’s engineers that there was a problem.
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CPH Engineers, Inc., which was contracted to design and build the water plant, sent company president David Gierach along with attorney Frank Hamner to answer questions about what the company knew about the plant’s problems, which began soon after it started operating, according to city officials.
“When a plant like this is constructed and it’s coming online, before everything is certified that it’s performing… your engineers are there to ensure it’s performing as it’s designed, correct?” Deputy Mayor Kevin Cannon asked.
Gierach said that was the case. But then after CPH engineers finished checking that the system was operating correctly, problems began. A filtration system in the plant that would occasionally have to be back-flushed to clear out debris it had removed from treated water was needing to be flushed far more often than initially expected, according to City Manager Shawn Boyle, lowering the plant’s output rate, which was originally expected to be 1 million gallons per day.
“[The filtration systems] were efficient, but they weren’t effective,” Boyle said. “They were efficient at removing the biological matter from the lake, but they weren’t effective because they couldn’t continue to run.”
During a drought in 2015, when water levels in Lake Jesup dropped, another problem became apparent.
“Right at the precise time that we needed the water, it couldn’t suction up any of the water off of Lake Jesup,” Boyle said.
The inlet pipe for the plant, he said, was too high, and as the water level dropped during the drought, which would recur in 2021, the plant couldn’t suck up water.
In light of the plant’s issues, Gierach brought up that the city had initially had the option to have a different system built, but that a 30-foot-tall water plant blocking part of the view of Lake Jesup from Central Winds Park may have factored into the decision.
“It would drastically improve the operation,” Gierach said of the larger water plant design, which Sanford uses to pull water from Lake Monroe. “I think it would have been our recommendation. Obviously we’re led by what the clients desire, and the clients desired something different.”
During the inquiry Gierach, echoing findings from the Commission, repeatedly said that during the six-year span between the plant opening and 2019, the city never contacted CPH about problems with the plant, even as it failed to operate for months at a time.
“If at any time since the beginning of this plant, if anyone had called… no one’s going to ignore that call,” Gierach said.
Boyle, who was acting city manager in 2019, said he raised the alarm to CPH in October of that year.
Gierach said that the first time he had heard about the water plant issue from a Winter Springs city official who had worked for the city during the plant’s first 6 years of operation was when former Mayor Charles Lacey contacted Gierach in 2021 to ask if he’d been subpoenaed. Lacey had refused to comply when he was issued a subpoena by the city requesting a meeting about the water plant.
Former City Utility Director Kip Lockuff also refused to comply with a subpoena, Cannon said, which commissioners said hamstrung their investigation as he would have had valuable information about the plant’s operation and could verify whether he knew of the plant’s problems and had attempted to contact CPH.
When Cannon requested that CPH retain files and data that would be up to a decade old so that the city could examine it, the meeting turned more tense, with Hamner repeatedly stating that CPH would not make an exception from its normal record retention policies for the purposes of the investigation.
Cannon rephrased his request several times, switching between Hamner and Gierach to try to get a satisfactory answer.
“Will you agree not to destroy documents that you may have in your files?” Cannon asked.
“We will follow our regular records retention policy, whatever that is,” Gierach said.
“You can ask it 10 different ways, Mr. Cannon. The answer’s still the same,” Hamner said.
Cannon made a motion to add more subpoenas to bring in more engineers to determine whether any communication had happened between the city and CPH during the period in question, but the tactic was questioned by fellow commissioners and residents in attendance.
“My concern is that the endgame is whatever answer we get from these engineers, is that really going to change where we go down the road with this process?” Commissioner Rob Elliott asked. “Do I think there was a failure of communication?” he added. “Yes I do.”
“Unless there’s a giant pot of gold at the end of this rainbow I think that going further is just throwing good money after bad,” resident Art Gallo said.
The motion was approved with Commissioner Ted Johnson dissenting.
“We have a Feb. 28 commission meeting,” Johnson said. “If we’re not getting anywhere by then, let’s put it to bed.”