West Palm Beach, Florida, is rethinking storm water. The city has undertaken a storm water master planning process to better integrate its management of storm water into its other water services. The city hopes to see tangible results for its residents: flood-related capital improvements, reduced flood insurance premiums, and increased its surface water supplies.

While West Palm Beach Public Utilities operates its storm water system for its residents, the utility is integral to the provision of water and wastewater services to a number of communities in South Florida. In addition to its own 110,000 residents, West Palm Beach Public Utilities provides water services to the towns of Palm Beach and South Palm Beach. In addition, the utility operates a regional sewage treatment plant on behalf of four other municipalities.

Dr. Poonam Kalkat, director of public utilities for the city of West Palm Beach, is leading the master planning process and efforts to implement its recommendations. Dr. Kalkat has a PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Municipal Water Leader’s editor-in-chief, Kris Polly, sat down with Dr. Kalkat to discuss the utility’s data-driven, progressive plan for saving citizens money and preparing for the future.

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Maintenance Leader of the Stormwater Division Eddie Robinson and Maintenance Worker Sam Marshall clean debris from a catch basin at a work site.

Kris Polly: Please provide some background on your utility.

Dr. Poonam Kalkat: Ours is an older water system. The city bought the system from the Flagler Water Company in 1950s. Henry Flagler came to Florida to build railroads to increase tourism, and the Florida East Coast Hotel Company built and operated a water plant at Clear Lake in 1901. In 1909, the water plant became part of Mr. Flagler’s West Palm Beach Water Company.

That being said, the city has the largest aquifer storage reservoir in the world, which we use to supplement our water supply during times of need. Water from Clear Lake is pumped into the aquifer during times of plenty, and during the dry season, we can withdraw water to supplement the existing surface water sources. Keep in mind, however, that we are one of the few municipalities in South Florida that does not use groundwater. Ours is a surface water–driven system.

Kris Polly: How long have you been with West Palm Beach Public Utilities?

Dr. Poonam Kalkat: I started working with the city in 2008 in the water and wastewater laboratory services division. I rose through the ranks to manage the lab. I transitioned into managing the water treatment plant and was promoted to be the assistant director of utilities. This July marks my third year as director of public utilities. In this role, I manage the watershed: water treatment, water distribution, water collection, wastewater treatment, and storm water.

Tim Howard, maintenance supervisor, directing the stormwater crew installing a tidal valve to help protect roadways from water flowing back into the storm system and streets during high-tide events.

Kris Polly: It is our understanding that you changed West Palm Beach’s view of storm water.

Dr. Poonam Kalkat: The utility developed the current storm water master plan in 2014–2015. We approached it in a different manner. When I came on board, we had a more traditional storm water master plan—it analyzed our drainage capacity and looked at pipe and structure repair or replacement projects. With this plan, the city began looking at different ways to evaluate our storm water system in a holistic manner to develop a new kind of master plan.

We decided to take a new, one-water approach—one that would put our community’s needs in the forefront and consider the watershed as a whole while continuing to look at storm water drainage, water quality, programmatic aspects, and the like. We looked at ways to reduce flood insurance premiums for our residents and to collaborate with other entities, including a citizens’ committee comprising West Palm Beach residents, real estate professionals, and the private insurance industry, to help achieve this goal.

We developed a comprehensive geographic database with our Storm Water Master Plan consultant Collective Water to help craft a thorough assessment for this plan. The data will save the city’s citizens millions in insurance premiums because we were able to show that some previously identified flood zones were not actually flood zones. Building this database really helped us move forward with confidence. Now, we have one of the most holistic storm water and geographic data sets in Florida.

Kris Polly: How long has it taken to complete the master plan?

Dr. Poonam Kalkat: We started planning in 2014 and are finalizing the report now. We are currently verifying that the data captured and thoroughly explained all the information we sought to obtain. The mapping project, which allowed us to get better premiums, was completed in 2017.

We wanted to make sure we were communicating with all our stakeholder groups when we were completing the storm water plan maps. To help, we assembled a citizens’ committee. In addition, our storm water team reviewed the process. The team, some of whom have been working in storm water for over 20 years, is very strong.

Kris Polly: With this new information, was West Palm Beach able to make better decisions regarding hard structures and drains?

Dr. Poonam Kalkat: Absolutely. Once the storm water master planning team collected all the data, it looked into the work order system, assessed system complaints, talked to the staff to gain institutional knowledge, and looked at the infrastructure itself. Once all the data had been analyzed, we developed a number of projects and prioritized them based on condition assessments and field evaluations.

To help prioritize the projects based on the assets’ actual condition assessment, we hired HDR. HDR established a methodology to complete this assessment and recommended how we should work to improve our infrastructure. We wanted to have a methodology that we can defend and share with our residents. This is part of a transparent government initiative our mayor has directed us to pursue. We want to make sure we are being good stewards for our rate payers. Based on the HDR methodology, we will determine the best course of action for prioritizing projects and determine whether repairs, rehabilitation, or replacement is needed.

Kris Polly: What is the time frame for the plan, and how will the projects that come out of it be funded?

Dr. Poonam Kalkat: In 2017, West Palm Beach Public Utilities borrowed $70 million in bond money. Of that amount, $45 million was for water and sewer and $25 million was for storm water. We are already lining up projects from our plan prioritization and have a good idea where to go from here. We have also committed to putting in $2.5 million of our annual repair and rehabilitation funds toward projects prioritized in the plan. Using the developed methodology and the Storm Water Master Plan, the capital projects will be fine tuned to ensure the best use of funds and the means of repair or replacement.

Kris Polly: Aside from improvements for flooding, do you see your city using storm water differently than it has in the past?

Dr. Poonam Kalkat: We have one project already—the Renaissance System Project— that uses storm water for source water. It takes water from downtown West Palm Beach to our treatment basin and puts it into our source water lakes. That was constructed a number of years ago.

South Florida Water Management District operates a drainage system via L8 Canal from Lake Okeechobee to C51 Canal to our south, sending water out to tide at Lakeworth Lagoon and creating water quality concerns at the lagoon. The city modified some structures to bring water from C51, which otherwise would have gone to tide, through the Renaissance system to supplement the city’s source water.