'Definitely a milestone': DWU celebrates 50 years of triumphs, growing pains and expansion

Matt Algarin
A Destin Water Users crew flushes a hydrant in this photo from 1983. The utility’s announcement in 1984 that it was maxed out on its ability to dispose of wastewater effectively created a development moratorium in Destin.

By historical accounts, failing wells in the early 1960s led a group of concerned residents to start thinking about a community water system, and in 1963 Destin Water Users, Inc. filed Articles of Incorporation and the water utility was born.

"This company owes it to George French and all of those early managers," said Richard Griswold, DWU's general manager. "It's very interesting to see the series of really good business decisions that were made by a very diverse group of people."

A history of growth

Now, 50 years after the utility came on line, Griswold sat down with The Log to talk about where the utility has been in the past and where it plans to go in the future.

Initial construction of the utilities infrastructure began immediately after funding was secured through the Farmer's Home Administration, which was a government-backed organization that authorized loans for housing, farm improvement, water systems and emergency relief projects.

Since residents had been using their own wells for years, Griswold said they honestly had no idea how much water they were really using, which made for some "interesting" conversations when DWU finally began charging for water.

"They went from a standing start where people that had never received a utility bill in their entire life began getting water bills," Griswold said. "They got a bill and would say 'there is no way I used that much water.' "

Although a system was in place, those early days didn't come without plenty of "growing pains" and struggles. In the late ’60s, Griswold said the utilities books' were so out of order, there were plenty of uncertainties.

But, persistence paid off and growth began to help DWU get back on track. As the decade turned over, expansion was the name of the game.

In addition to providing residents with water, Destin Water Users built a wastewater treatment facility in 1972. Advances in technology during the ’80s allowed DWU to offer reclaimed water to the Indian Bayou Golf Course, and the ’90s saw the utility acquire several smaller utilities and add them to the growing company.

"Every year we were in a growing situation," said Griswold, who came to the utility in 1999.

‘On the technology train’

As he looks back at DWU history, Griswold says it's not like dusting off an encyclopedia or anything, even though it began 50 years ago.

"To me, it's not even history," he said. "To me, 1964 seems like yesterday, so I don't even look at it as history, I look at it as part of today."

"It's just been a long day," he added. "We're still in a maturing state, and there are still things to learn."

One thing that Griswold has taken note of is the ever-changing technologies and regulations in the water and wastewater treatment industry, which can be "challenging to keep up with."

If you look at the duties of a utility worker from yesteryear and today, they are very different, and almost unrelated.

"The job of a utility worker used to be 'we're going to go out there, dig a ditch and lay a sewer line' and that doesn't happen anymore," Griswold said. "The science involved is pretty complex now and our operators out there study microbiology, and that's not the way it used to be."

He likened it to the evolution from typewriters and early computers to iPads and handheld tablets.

"When you start throwing away your typewriters and adapting to new technologies, you can't go back," he said. "When you get on the technology train you have to run with it."

As technology changes, DWU has been able to stay ahead of the curve, Griswold told The Log. He said the utility's board of directors has made a conscious effort to provide the employees the tools and technology they need to offer members the best service possible.

"It means everything for our customers," he said.

A new pipeline and ‘future stability’

One of the most recent projects the utility has completed will supply the city of Destin with all of the water it needs "for its future," Griswold says.

During an April 19 dedication, representatives from DWU and South Walton Utility Company unveiled the General Bill Brown Well Field Transmission Main, which is a 15-mile pipeline in Freeport. The $22 million project brings potable water from the Bill Brown Well Field to the customers of South Walton and Destin.

"It's future stability for Destin," Griswold told The Log, adding that water utilities were told to decrease their consumption from coastal wells, while increasing their use of inland wells. "This will help us protect our water resources from saltwater intrusion."

With the day-to-day operations at DWU always buzzing, Griswold says the plant’s doors on Airport Road are always open to the public, and he encourages them to come and get a behind-the-scenes look at the facility. It's not uncommon to see groups of students touring the grounds, or adults for that matter.

"When you take the citizens out, it's always a 'who woulda thunk it' type of response," he said. "It always impresses people."

As part of its mission, Destin Water Users aims to keep its environmental impacts to a minimum and Griswold says all decisions are made with the best interest of Destin in mind. He said Destin is "paradise" and Destin Water Users is "doing its part to keep it that way."

And with a half-century of history behind the utility, Griswold told The Log that DWU is in a good position to continue serving its members and the city of Destin for another 50.

While Destin has changed, and technology has changed, the mission of Destin Water Users still remains the same.

"I can't really tell a lot of differences between our original directors and the directors today," he said. "Our basic operating policies haven't changed in 50 years."

"It's definitely a milestone."