Altamonte Springs captures I-4 runoff to water lawns in Apopka

from the Orlando Sentinel

On the average day, a slurry of dirty rainwater capable of filling seven Olympic-sized swimming pools slides off a section of Interstate 4 and drains into Altamonte Springs.

City officials couldn’t be more excited.

They see the runoff that many would treat as waste as a resource that can help meet water needs for miles around. And with the recent completion of a $12.5 million system called A-FIRST, they’ll be collecting the water, cleaning it up and using it to hydrate lawns across Altamonte Springs and Apopka.

“With this project, we now make usable 4.5 million gallons of rainwater a day,” Altamonte Springs city manager Frank Martz said.

It’s the first time that runoff from a major highway in Florida has been collected and re-purposed in this way. In fact, city officials say A-FIRST might be the first system of its kind anywhere in the United States.

On Friday, they will hold a ceremony to celebrate the newly launched water reuse system and bring together the state and local officials who made it a reality. The system has been operating for more than a month, but it will become even more important with the widening of I-4, a project that will increase runoff.

“Our water resources are essential to the future of Florida, and this is a project that helps to ensure that we’re using our water resources wisely,” said state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

The A-FIRST system catches rainwater from a roughly two-mile section of the highway and funnels it into Cranes Roost for temporary storage. The water is then disinfected and cleaned of oil, gasoline and other gunk before it’s distributed to sprinkler systems across Altamonte Springs and Apopka.

Officials about a year ago launched the construction project to build pumps, prepare a water plant to reopen and lay a 6-mile pipeline that will shuttle reclaimed water to Apopka.

The Florida Department of Transportation covered about $4.5 million of the project cost, and Altamonte Springs chipped in $3 million. The St. Johns River Water Management District contributed $3.5 million, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection handled the rest.

Under the new partnership, the city of Apopka will get a daily average of 4.5 million gallons of the reclaimed water, Martz said. Altamonte Springs will provide the water for free, he said.

The setup benefits both sides: Altamonte Springs doesn’t have to worry about excess water storage, and Apopka prepares to meet a growing water demand.

The city of Apopka already provides its residents an average of 5.5 million gallons per day of reclaimed water.

Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer said his city is working on an $11 million project to construct two retention ponds to accommodate some of the water from Altamonte Springs. As Apopka prepares for a wave of growth and development, the reservoirs will stand ready and waiting to hydrate all the new lawns, Kilsheimer said.

By directing excess water to Apopka, the A-FIRST system also prevents spillage into the Little Wekiva River. Officials say this spares the river from an influx of pollutants and harmful nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which can create slimy mats of algae that choke out aquatic life. “It changes the water chemistry and the biology of the river,” said Jay Exum, secretary for Friends of the Wekiva River. “So it’s a fantastic and laudable goal to treat otherwise untreated runoff.”

Running A-FIRST will cost Altamonte Springs about $100,000 each year, but overall, the city will save roughly $900,000 by reusing the water rather than treating and discharging it into the Little Wekiva, according to city staff.

Now that A-FIRST has launched in Altamonte Springs, other Florida communities might want to copy the project, Martz says.

Altamonte Springs officials early on recognized the value of reusing water; since the 1980s, the city has been recycling water for irrigation.

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