The High Springs Commission directed staff last week to enter a dialogue with Newberry and Archer concerning a regional wastewater facility that would serve all three cities in the coming years.
Newberry and Archer have already solidified their commitment to the project, and the City of Trenton has expressed interest, according to Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe.
In a phone interview, Marlowe said the design plans for the advanced wastewater facility have reached 70% completion. But High Springs and Trenton still have time to join and expand the project’s scope.
“I want to get all four cities in this,” Marlowe said in the interview. “So, if there’s a way to encourage them, I’m happy to do that. But at some point, once that engineering is 98% done, it’ll be expensive for us to go back and then change the plan.”
Marlowe showed up at the High Springs meeting on Sept. 8 to answer questions from the commission. He confirmed with staff that High Springs will fall under no obligation after the vote and added that three cities will form a stronger request for state funds.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has already funded the design and engineering phase through grants, and Marlowe announced that Tallahassee has also agreed to pay for the connection line between Newberry and Archer.
Marlowe told the High Springs Commission that each grant Newberry and Archer receive makes the project more cost effective for other cities as well. He said the DEP response to the project has been enthusiastic.
“This was a really good deal to get behind when it was Newberry and Archer,” Marlowe said. “It becomes even more attractive to get behind if we bring High Springs into it.”
Newberry closed on a 92-acre property that will house the wastewater facility. The city has entered talks to fill the property with other projects as well—compost, recycling and fire training facilities—to create an environmental park.
Archer will send its wastewater through state-funded pipes to the Newberry site. The facility, updated to the latest DEP standards, will filter the wastewater before distributing it over a wetlands area.
If High Springs or Trenton hop aboard, the same process would occur with Newberry forming the connection point.
Marlowe is pushing for a wetlands park at the site. Like Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville, the treated wastewater would filter down into the aquafer while landscaping, trails and Florida wildlife provide a space for residents to enjoy the outdoors.
The DEP no longer provides project points for including a wetlands park, but Marlowe said he sees the value as a teacher. The facility and park will fall within walking distance of all three Newberry schools, providing an educational fieldtrip within watermelon-seed-spitting distance.
The balance now, Marlowe said, will be between the funds Tallahassee provides and how much Newberry’s residents want to pay for the wetlands park.
Marlowe said he’s unaware of other Florida cities banding together to form a regional wastewater facility. But stricter DEP guidelines mean more expensive plants for cities, and Marlowe said small cities will struggle with the price tags alone.
He said Newberry’s plant increased from $25 million to $40 million because of the new standards.
“I honestly don’t know how Tallahassee expects smaller municipalities to meet the standards that they have dictated without these types of partnerships,” Marlowe said.
At the moment, Newberry has room to grow. The city could lend wastewater capacity to Archer and High Springs while still meeting resident needs, according to Marlowe. But the mayor said the cities need to look a decade or two down the road to get ahead of the stricter requirements and local growth.
Newberry estimates 300-500 new residents per year. The U.S. Census Bureau shows High Springs adding just under 900 residents from the 2010 to 2020 census, and estimates from April 2020 to July 2021 show an increase of 140.
High Springs residents themselves have testified to increases in population during public comment about potential new developments.
Richard Cason, wastewater superintendent for High Springs, said the city sits at 92% capacity for its treatment center that caps at 240,000 gallons of flow per day. But the city has a bid out to build a twin site that will double its capacity, sending the usage down to roughly 50%.
A $7 million grant from the Suwannee River Water Management District will cover the cost. Construction would start at the beginning and 2023, and Cason said the facility should be operational by 2024.
Even at 92%, Cason said the city will be able to supply the community needs until the twin facility comes online.
Thomas Henry, public works director for High Springs, said the city stands in good shape for water and wastewater. The city hopes to start installing Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI) in 2023. These smart meters will read water usage automatically for the city and customers.
Henry added that a state-funded project will finish soon that loops the city’s water lines, allowing a continual flow that prevents water from growing stagnant. The city is also midway through digging its third well which will provide redundancy in the system.
If High Springs decides to join the regional wastewater project, Marlowe said they can join at any capacity level and then pay for that percentage.
Bruce Gillingham, assistant city manager for High Springs, said the regional facility presents lots of positives.
“I think it would be foolish if we did not at least explore this option to see where we can fit in, how we can make this work,” Gillingham said at the Sept. 8 meeting.
He said the largest drawback for the city would be piping the wastewater to Newberry. If the city must pay for it, Gillingham said the city could likely finance its own facility.
Marlowe said he would reach out to state Sen. Keith Perry, R-District 8, and state Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-District 21, to let them know High Springs has entered the talks.