FORT WALTON BEACH — Many Northwest Floridians might not give much thought to clean drinking water.

But unlike residents of places like Flint, Michigan, locals do not have to worry about lead in their water. Nor do they have to stock up on bottled water to ensure that the H20 from their public water source doesn’t harm them or their loved ones.

In that light, being able to receive clean drinking water from your tap at home 24 hours a day, seven days a week could be viewed as a luxury, or at least a necessity that should not be taken for granted.

According to local water management officials, our drinking water is pure.

Water sources

Northwest Florida’s drinking water comes from the Floridan Aquifer, one of the largest natural aquifers in the country. It extends from the Panhandle through southeast Alabama, southern Georgia and into the Carolinas.

The Floridan Aquifer averages 1,000 feet deep, and freshwater can extend to a depth of 2,000 feet below land surface.

Destin Waters Users, the city of Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa and Walton counties pull their water from the upper Floridan Aquifer, which is a limestone aquifer. The sand-and-gravel aquifer that makes up the first level of the area’s groundwater flow system is the main source for Santa Rosa County.

The water essentially is ready to drink when it comes out of the aquifers.

“We dose it with a little bit of chlorine in order to preserve disinfection from the point where it is pulled out of the ground to the point of distribution at each individual's homes,” said Lockwood Wernet, general manager of Destin Water Users.

Water testing

Most municipalities have their own water systems and are responsible for testing and treating their drinking water and getting it to the consumer.

In Fort Walton Beach, there are nine wells where checks are done daily for chlorine residuals — the amount of chlorine remaining in the water after it is disinfected.

Four distribution systems are also checked daily for chlorine. Then they are flushed to improve water quality.

The city is responsible for monthly bacteriological samplings at 25 system locations and nine “raw,” or untreated, locations. The city staff collects samples that are sent to a laboratory for analysis.

Fort Walton Beach previously tested water samples in its own laboratory. On Oct. 1, the city ceased operations at the laboratory and now contracts the testing out to an independent company.

Destin Water Users has its own nationally certified laboratory where water is tested.

Water is tested for total coliform, lead and copper. If total coliform is found, officials then test for E. coli. Lead and copper are less likely to be found because many of Destin’s homes were built in the 1980s and have updated pipes.

Some companies add fluoride to their water, but Fort Walton Beach and Destin Water Users do not. Destin adds one part of chlorine per million parts of water to kill bacteria.

Okaloosa County’s drinking water is tested daily at a county lab for many types of contaminants and meets all state and federal requirements, Okaloosa County Water and Sewer Director Jeff Littrell said.

“We are very, very fortunate," he said. "The water that comes out of the aquifer is very clean and pure. Really, all we do to treat it is add a bit of chlorine to disinfect it."

 

Water supply

Destin Water Users has six coastal wells, six inland wells and three water towers, with 140 miles of water pipe. About 30 years ago the Northwest Florida Water Management District, Destin Water Users and South Walton Utility Company jointly developed an inland well field in the Rock Hill area just north of Freeport in Walton County.

“Work started on that in the ‘80s when we started seeing a draw down in the aquifer here along the coast,” Wernet said. “There were concerns that it could cause saltwater intrusion. Through the ‘90s, we worked on developing the well field, and in 2001 is when the first water started flowing out of the well field.”

While the Floridan Aquifer is “rechargeable,” it is not unlimited. In areas where the limestone reaches the surface — locally, somewhere around Paxton — rain seeps into the limestone and recharges the aquifer.

Destin Water Users and other water systems regularly monitor their usage. The Water Management District issues the companies consumptive use permits on how much water can be taken out, taking into account all uses in the area.

The permits are for five years and have a cap on usage. In Destin, the water usage skyrockets in the summer. But come winter, it goes back down and things even out.

In the past, Destin Water Users has had to reduce the consumption of its coastal wells and take more water from its well field. About two years ago, it started getting more than 50 percent of its water from the well field in Rock Hill.

“By doing that, the hydraulic profile for the coastal wells has actually risen, which is a good thing,” Operations Manager Monica Autrey said.

Saltwater intrusion is one of the biggest concerns, and is more possible in the area’s lower zones.

Okaloosa County once had wells on Okaloosa Island, but they were abandoned because of saltwater intrusion after the system was over-pumping the wells.

Wells range from 400 feet at the top of the aquifer to about 700 feet at the bottom.

“You have an open hole that’s a couple hundred feet deep below Destin,” Autrey said. “Then we have a pump that’s in the well casing that’s ... an impeller. It lifts the water out of the well.”

Once a well is drilled, the pump is inspected about every 10 years unless there are problems. The wells don’t need a lot of maintenance, according to Autrey.

Bay County has the only surface water plant in the Panhandle, and it does a lot of treatment before it sends water out, according to officials.

Escambia County’s Emerald Coast Utilities Authority uses a shallower aquifer made of sand and gravel. Concerns in that portion of the aquifer could include gas station spills, buried items and dumped chemicals.

There is layer of clay between the sand and gravel aquifer and the Floridan aquifer, which is a benefit, Wernet said. This geology makes it less likely for spilled chemicals to seep into the aquifer.

The original settlers of Destin drilled their own wells. Destin Water Users was established after problems arose with the wells.

Although the population continues to grow, Destin Water Users isn’t worried about water usage because people are more conscientious today.

The utility even noticed a drop-off in usage when the population began to grow because there are more water-saving measures through building codes and more efficient devices, Autrey said.

About 7.2 million gallons of drinking water is pumped out of the upper Floridan Aquifer each day in Okaloosa County. That equates to more than 2.6 billion gallons annually.

The Water Management District permits the county to withdraw 10.6 million gallons per day.

At one time, local officials thought the county would need to switch to a surface water supply by about 2025, Littrell said. But when the Great Recession hit in 2008, previous population growth projection curves “flattened way out, so we have excess water capacity” probably beyond 2025, he said.

According to the Water Management District’s 2018 water supply assessment, “It is reasonable to anticipate that significant reliance on groundwater (pumped from the aquifer) will continue through 2040” for Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties.

Littrell said Okaloosa County officials have prepared for the eventual switch to a surface water supply. The county has land on both sides of the Shoal River where an intake structure and reservoir could be built.

A dam will be built on a tributary of the river, and water will be pumped out of the creek into the reservoir, he said. The site also will contain a surface water treatment plant, Littrell said.

Daily News reporter Tony Judnich contributed to this report