Lake Helen has had a slew of problems with its water system, causing some in the small town to question whether what they are drinking is safe, and whether their water bills are accurate.
For two years, 300 faulty meters have not allowed the staff to read customers’ water usage, giving roughly one-fifth of Lake Helen residents base water bills of $74 a quarter, instead of the charges for what they had actually used. A problem with a chlorine sensor Jan. 20 mistakenly pumped high amounts of chlorine into an unknown number of customers’ faucets. A water-main break in October 2021 sent city commissioners to the streets searching for the leak. And one resident had to pay a water bill of $6,000 because a leak on his property was not discovered until the end of his quarterly billing cycle. City staff calculated an annual loss of $180,000 because of the inability to read meters.
Lake Helen’s older water system, compounded by the loss of longtime Public Works Director Ricky Mullen in September 2021, has been on the minds of city officials and residents for months.
And the loss of Mullen, the only person on the city staff with the required licenses to maintain and operate the water system, required Lake Helen to request bids from companies to take over operation and maintenance of the city’s three water plants.
A company called Biometrics, which has assisted Lake Helen with its water system since 2005, was originally selected at a Feb. 16 meeting, but later withdrew its low bid. The city is now contracted with U.S. Water Services Corp. to maintain the system, at a cost of $54,470 annually.
In a draft assessment by U.S. Water, the company pointed to several deficiencies in the water system.
U.S. Water noted the following deficiencies:
No formal preventative-maintenance plan, or backflow program;
Insufficient and inoperable water-isolation valves in some areas;
Reagents (chemicals used for analysis) being used to test chlorine levels, although water tests did show an appropriate level of chlorine. The report says the reagents expired in October 2019;
Chlorine analyzers with alarms set at both too high of a maximum acceptable level, and too low of a minimum level;
Around 14,000 linear feet (2.7 miles) of asbestos cement pipe, which needs to be replaced due to the fragility of the pipes and the use of asbestos; and
Improperly color-coded fire hydrants.
An interlocal agreement with Cassadaga “appears [to] require additional improvements beyond those contemplated in the agreement.”
What is the city currently doing?
Lake Helen is securing funding, with the assistance of the Florida Rural Water Association, for a complete replacement of defective meters at a cost of $508,000, borrowed at an interest rate of 1.3 percent. The loan is 50-percent forgivable, with a payout period of 20 years.
To catch problems sooner, like the one with the $6,000 leak, the city is considering moving to monthly, instead of quarterly, billing.
What does the water system look like?
Lake Helen’s water system has three wells and three water-treatment plants that service 1,880 connections (for an estimated population of 2,704) over 7 square miles.
Lake Helen customers use an average of 320,188 gallons of water per day.
Download the report here: Assessment Draft