July 23, 2014

Infrastructure

A Huge Waste

Growth is outstripping Columbia County's wastewater system.

Bob Snell | 10/1/2005
Columbia County is finally experiencing the kind of building boom business leaders have been anticipating for years. But all the growth may grind to a halt unless county leaders either build a new wastewater system or greatly expand the county's existing network.

The municipal wastewater system, which is managed by the Lake City Wastewater utility, has two key problems.

NO. 1 CONCERN: Chamber Executive Director Jim Poole says the county's wastewater problem is restricting growth.Growth has consumed the aging system's capacity: The county's population has jumped by 42% from 1990 to 2004 (compared with a statewide increase of 33%), and employment has risen by 35%.

But growth isn't the only culprit. Stormwater runoff (particularly after 2004's hurricanes) has increasingly infiltrated the system -- soaking up even more capacity. Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection have noted that the system often exceeds its permitted maximum of 3 million gallons per day. Things are so bad the county may soon have to place a moratorium on residential and commercial construction.

"Wastewater management is the No. 1 issue facing the county today," says Lake City/Columbia County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Poole. "It is critical we get this problem resolved so this county can continue to grow."

About 75 business and civic leaders gathered over the summer to hear the expensive choices facing the county. A project manager for Jones Edmunds & Associates presented a report that estimated it could cost upward of $50 million to expand the system and bring it up to state standards.

While most agree a speedy fix is essential, the question of who will pay and manage the new system has emerged as a possible sticking point. Some civic leaders are resurrecting an idea that divided the residents of Lake City and the surrounding county 20 years ago: Consolidated government.

Poole says a task force will consider whether the existing utility should remain under city control or whether county or private management might be a better fit -- given that most new homes and businesses are outside city limits.

Poole and others doubt whether consolidated government (similar to the Jacksonville and Duval County merger 35 years ago) is the answer to the county's growing needs. While a single governmental entity would allow officials to more efficiently deal with issues that cross municipal lines, Poole says city leaders are loathe to give up the independence Lake City has exercised since its founding in 1856.

"I think consolidation is more of a talking point right now, an idea that some people are floating to see the kind of reaction it gets," says Poole. "But if we can't make progress on some of the serious issues we face, it may not be very far down the road."

Tags: Big Bend

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