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Okeechobee Utility Authority tests for toxins in drinking water from Lake Okeechobee algae

Only utility in Palm Beach County, Treasure Coast using surface water as drinking source
Posted at 7:02 PM, Jun 03, 2021

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — The Okeechobee Utility Authority is doing its own testing for potential toxins in its drinking water now that algae is visible on Lake Okeechobee.

Aside from the city of West Palm Beach, the Okeechobee Utility Authority is the only other utility in Palm Beach County or the Treasure Coast using surface water as the main source for their drinking water supply.

"We don't even use the groundwater plant. So, all of it is coming from the lake," said John Hayford, executive director of the Okeechobee Utility Authority.

The OUA services nearly 10,000 homes or businesses in the city of Okeechobee, Okeechobee County and some of Glades County.

In water samples collected May 17 for both raw and treated water, samples of the raw water flowing into the treatment plant showed positive levels of microcystin, a toxin found in blue-green algae. However, the sample for the treated water showed non-detectable levels of the toxin.

West Palm Beach detected a different toxin in its water system, cylindrospermopsin.

Hayford said that shows their treatment system is working.

"Even if we didn't catch it right away, there's still that comfort level that the treatment system we use is very functional and will take much, if not it all, out," Hayford said.

Now, Hayford said, the utility will do bi-weekly testing for four algae-related toxins until the bloom on the lake dissipates. Results for the samples collected on June 3 should come back by next week.

When they cannot see or smell algae on the lake, the Okeechobee Utility Authority does not do routine toxin testing related to algae.

"Our process is we, during an algal event, let's say, it's either identified off of satellite or aerial imagery or you see it or smell it in the water system," Hayford said. "We do sampling both of the raw water and finished water."

Hayford showed WPTV how their treatment plant works.

The water from Lake Okeechobee is pulled into the plant through a gravity system. First, the water is filtered for the big items.

"The shells, the clams, the shrimp, the solid parts," Hayford explained.

Then the filtration process gets more intricate, eliminating finer particles.

It's treated with ozone to improve the taste and smell.

"If the toxins make it this far, the ozone cooks it out," Hayford said.

Then it's disinfected and stored.

Hayford concedes that a groundwater source of water could be more consistent. The OUA has a groundwater system it can use in emergencies.

"On the surface water, different things like rain events, wind direction, can drastically change the water," Hayford said.

He said there are no plans or intentions to change their water treatment methods or their source of drinking water.

"As long as it works and meets the regulatory criteria, I don't know that there would be a reason to change," Hayford said.