Orlando urges reduced water usage as liquid oxygen used to purify water goes to COVID patients

The city of Orlando and its water utility made an urgent appeal Friday afternoon for residents to cut back sharply on water usage for weeks because of a pandemic-triggered shortage of liquid oxygen used to purify water.

If commercial and residential customers are unable to reduce water usage quickly and sufficiently, Orlando Utilities Commission may issue a system-wide alert for boiling water needed for drinking and cooking. Without reductions in water usage, a boil-water alert would come within a week, utility officials said.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer asked residents to immediately stop watering their lawns, washing their cars and using pressure washers. Landscape irrigation consumes about 40% of the water provided by OUC.

“It’s a pretty simple thing that we are asking our residential customers,” Dyer said. “Let’s just not water your yard for a week. In all likelihood, there will be thunderstorms during the week anyway.”

Medical authorities have reported that along with a spike in hospitalizations for COVID cases, hospitals are relying increasingly on treatment involving high flows of supplemental oxygen for patients.

That has spurred a nationwide shortage for liquid oxygen, which has been exacerbated by a lack of available tanker trucks and drivers.

As the region’s largest water utility, OUC provides about 90 million gallons of potable water daily to 140,000 customers or an estimated 400,000 people within city limits and in Orange County.

OUC said the call for reduced water usage will be in place for at least two to three weeks. The city has already stopped irrigation at parks and ballfields.

Since the 1990s, OUC has relied on a treatment process, also used by some producers of bottled water, that is more high-end than treatment processes at most cities and counties.

OUC’s process requires liquid oxygen to produce ozone gas. The gas is injected into water to oxidize, or burn away any naturally occurring discoloration and rotten-egg smell in water pumped from the Floridan Aquifer.

Because OUC uses ozone to get rid of the organic compounds that cause color and taste, the utility is able to reduce usage of chlorine for disinfection to the state’s legal minimum.

But without ozone injection, OUC’s process is not able to add enough chlorine to disinfect water to meet state standards for purity.

OUC normally takes deliveries of liquid oxygen by 10 tanker trucks weekly. That volume will be reduced to five to seven deliveries weekly, said Linda Ferrone, OUC’s chief customer and marketing officer.

That means that OUC’s daily water production could be reduced by nearly half on some days. Ferrone said her utility estimates that cutbacks in irrigation can cover the shortfall of water production.

“Our concern is if it should drop below that,” Ferrone said of the five to seven weekly deliveries of liquid oxygen.

Ferrone said shortages of liquid oxygen began to appear a few weeks ago. “We weren’t aware it would be an ongoing concern,” she said.