Over $1 billion needed to fix crumbling Miami-Dade sewage system

Miami HeraldJuly 24, 2012 

Miami-Dade County’s three main water treatment plants and 7,700 miles of pipelines are so outdated it would take an initial installment of more than $1.1 billion just to replace the “most deteriorated vulnerable sections” of the system, a five-month just released internal study shows.

From water plants that serve from South Miami-Dade to Hialeah to the county line, to pipes that move drinking water and sewage, to sewage treatment plants from Virginia Key to North Dade, so much corrosion has taken place that initial repairs could take anywhere from three to eight years, the study found.

Each day 300 million gallons of effluent pass through the county’s sewer system, which combined with treated drinking water is the 10th largest utility in the nation.

The release of the report Tuesday comes five months after Commissioner Barbara Jordan demanded it, and two months after federal regulators swarmed Miami demanding repairs and upgrades. Authorities from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are expected to spend up to another four months discussing how to fix and pay for a system its director said is “being held together by chewing gum.”

The study, pieced together by the county’s Water & Sewer Department shows the majority of the initial fixes — about $736 million worth of immediate work — is needed for the sewer lines. The county’s main water treatment in Hialeah, and two sewer plants, on Virginia Key and South Miami-Dade, are 56, 45 and 87 years old, respectively. The water lines, which draw our drinking water, would take another $364 million to repair. A typical observation was that of Hialeah’s John E. Preston water treatment plant, which serves from north of Flagler Street up to Broward County.

The report noted that “the plant has numerous mechanical, electrical and process components which have exceeded the end of their useful economic service lives, which is usually 20 years.” A picture in the report shows a collapsed interior wall on the plant that has been in operation since 1966.

The aging system — not unlike similar systems in most major cities throughout the U.S. — is in such disrepair that it has ruptured at least 65 times over the past two years, spilling more than 47 million gallons of untreated human waste into waterways and streets from one end of the county to the other. Just this week a 36-inch main gave way in Little Haiti leaving several families distraught and in search of a place to stay until their homes dry out.

It was those breaks that were the focus of warning letters sent by federal authorities to the county from 2010 through May, when they finally came calling. The letters warned of possible civil penalties that could reach $10,000 a day, and the talks are expected to lead to a settlement that would include customer rate hikes. Historically, Miami-Dade has had some of the least expensive water in the state.

And though commissioners have been loathe to raise taxes or increase fees in these difficult economic times, most have conceded it’s probably necessary this time.

The report notes that the funding methods are not likely to be similar to the early 1970s when Congress passed the Clean Water Act and grants were available for about 75 percent of repairs. Without being specific, the report says some grants should be available, but concedes much of the work is likely to be paid for through revenue bonds and rate hikes.

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