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Alachua County Commission votes to spend $1.25 million in federal aid to upgrade Santa Fe Hills Water System

The Alachua County Commission unanimously voted Tuesday to spend $1.25 million in federal funds on the improvement of the deteriorating water infrastructure for the unincorporated neighborhood of Santa Fe Hills on the outskirts of the City of Alachua. 

The $1.25 million is part of the $52.25 million in federal funds allocated to Alachua County through the American Rescue Plan Act, the stimulus package passed by Congress and signed into law by the Biden administration in March 2021 to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Santa Fe Hills Water System, built in 1966 by the neighborhood’s original private developer, has fallen into disrepair. Alachua County has been managing the system since the developer went bankrupt in 2002 and a circuit court judge placed the system under the county’s control in receivership. 

The county does not own the system but is responsible for maintaining it. It is the only water infrastructure directly under county control.

A county report included in the meeting’s agenda described the system as maintenance intensive and difficult to keep in compliance with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s standards.

The county plans to “completely upgrade” the system, including its mains, meters and lines. The county plans to connect and transfer operation of the upgraded system to the City of Alachua after the project’s completion.

The project’s timeline states that construction will begin in May 2024 and be completed by the end of the year. Transfer of operations to the City of Alachua will occur at the beginning of 2025. The current phase of the timeline involves the county issuing a request for proposal for potential contractors.

One issue the county currently faces is acquiring sewer easements for the new lines from property owners. The county said while the necessity of easements is likely, it may be possible to only use right-of-way land.

An official agreement between the county and the City of Alachua has not been finalized. The possibility that the City of Alachua’s new leadership, particularly its new city manager, may not be fully on board with operating the upgraded system was mentioned at the meeting, but the commission remained confident that city leadership would remain in support of the project after proposed further conversation.

During public comment, former City of Alachua commissioner Tamara Robbins asked the county to consider similar efforts for the 45-year-old water infrastructure for the city’s Oaks at Hague neighborhood, which she said is contaminated because of a nearby site which used to house a General Electric battery plant.

Tommy Crosby, the assistant county manager for budget and fiscal services, said that the difference between the two situations was because Alachua County is directly legally obligated to maintain the Santa Fe Hills system.

Newly elected Commissioner Mary Alford, an environmental engineer who previously served on Alachua County’s Environmental Protection Advisory Board, agreed that the situation in Oaks at Hague needed looking into and that its history of contamination extended back to her time on the advisory board.

According to the meeting agenda, the Santa Fe Hills Water System’s outdated electrical circuits have a higher risk of failure than modern models, its fire hydrants are not up to county code, maintenance and meter reading are difficult due to meters’ placement in the back of properties and one or both of the system’s wells have frequently tested positive for fecal coliform.

Fecal coliform is not dangerous, according to the CDC, but can indicate that feces and harmful germs are present in the water system. 

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s 2021 assessment of the system found both of its wells to have a susceptibility score of 8.33, which is considered to be of low concern. 

The county’s own 2021 assessment by the Santa Fe Hills Water Association, which is operated by Alachua County Public Works, found small amounts of copper and lead, significantly below the amount needed to cause harm, believed to have resulted from corrosion of the plumbing system and natural deposits in the ground. 

The assessment also states that the county, self-admittingly in violation with monitoring and reporting requirements, was unable to test the system for Glyphosate or Picloram, two synthetic chemicals that can cause kidney, liver or reproductive issues.

The assessment informed residents of Santa Fe Hills that while the county was unable to determine if the chemicals were present in the system due to the oversight, and therefore unable to determine if there was any negative impact to their health, the chemicals had not been a problem for the system historically, and that the county decided to include the negative health impacts of the chemicals in the report anyway as a precaution.

The meeting agenda report states that the goal of the project is to “help the historically underserved, marginalized, or adversely affect groups of citizens in the neighborhood.”

The report also states the county expects the citizens of Santa Fe Hills to be involved in every step of the project, including design, bidding and construction. Engagement will be fostered through public notices at the current water plant, written notification on residents’ water bills, stakeholder interviews and the sharing of project proposals.

Silas is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.