ENVIRONMENT

South Florida sewage pipes cause a stink

Local governments are taking exception to a proposal by state regulators to reuse wastewater that is now dumped in the ocean.

crabin@MiamiHerald.com

State environmental regulators want to plug six pipes that pump some half-billion gallons a day of ''minimally treated'' sewage into the ocean off Southeast Florida, saying the longtime practice wastes precious water and is likely damaging reefs and marine life.

But Miami-Dade and Broward counties are balking, citing a price tag in the billions for new wastewater recycling systems that could boost typical household water bills by $20 or more a month.

''It is not in the public interest to spend a significant amount of money to eliminate the discharges when we do not have the answer as to what is really causing the impact to reefs,'' says part of a presentation Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez planned to deliver to Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday.

The meeting was rescheduled for next week, but two Broward mayors already have given similar messages to Crist, who has yet to sign off on the proposal from the Department of Environmental Protection. Last month, Broward Mayor Josephus Eggelletion Jr. and Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti sent letters calling the costs prohibitive and requesting more precise data about harm to marine life.

Environmentalists and divers, who have pushed the state and utilities in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to plug the pipes, believe persuasive research links nutrients in sewage to reef-choking algae blooms.

''It's the same as putting manure on your garden.'' said Ed Tichenor, who directs Palm Beach County's Reef Relief, which has campaigned to shut down the pipes since a major bloom engulfed a favorite diving spot in Delray Beach in 2003.

Brian LaPointe, a marine scientist at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, said research shows much higher concentrations of ammonia, nitrogen and a soup of other pollutants than the state has estimated and direct impacts from not only algae but coral diseases and other maladies.

''I've seen firsthand what sewage does to reefs,'' he said.

DEP doesn't endorse a direct link between sewage and reef damage but its report says the ``weight of the evidence . . . calls into question the environmental acceptability.''

Dade, Broward and Palm Beach each have two pipes running between two and three miles out to sea, discharging at depths of about 100 feet. Dade's extend from Virginia Key and near Florida International University's campus in North Miami. Broward's run from Hollywood and Pompano Beach.

Though acknowledging the high cost of advanced wastewater plants -- $2.7 billion for three counties, according to a University of Florida estimate -- the DEP argues that treating and reusing the wastewater would help meet water demands over the next 20 years.

SUSTAINABILITY

Recycling the water ''would advance the agency's mission to protect Florida's surface and ground waters, including coastal resources, and to assure the future sustainability of Florida's public water supplies,'' according to a DEP report to Crist.

The report said Dade has the highest industrial demand for water in Florida; it blames excessive water use on golf courses and in parks and points to Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point nuclear plant as an example of a large industrial user that doesn't use recycled water.

The region also ranks lowest in the state for re-using water, the report notes, with Miami-Dade flushing about 208 million gallons of wastewater a day into the ocean; Broward, 191 million; and Palm Beach, 108 million.

But John Renfrow, director of Miami-Dade's Water & Sewer Department, said the county plans to spend $4 billion over the next 20 years to re-use wastewater in South Miami-Dade and Hialeah. The county is building a plant to meet state requirements.

The DEP proposal, the county argues, would add $1.85 billion in costs and force construction of complicated plumbing to deliver water from plants along the coast to suburbs in the west.

''It would mean destroying streets and putting in pipes,'' Renfrow said. ``It would take a massive, Herculean effort.''

Broward administrators struck a similar pose.

''We would like to be supplied with the data showing the connection,'' between dumping treated wastewater in the ocean and algae blooms, said Jennifer Jurado, who directs the water resource division of Broward's Environmental Protection Department.

Under the DEP proposal, communities could reuse water for irrigation, drinking and recharging groundwater supplies.

GLOBAL WARMING

With the threat of global warming, South Florida should back DEP's proposal if it wants to preserve drinking water, said T.J. Marshall, vice president of the South Florida chapter of The Surfrider Foundation, which focuses on water-quality issues.

Rising sea levels will push salt water further inland, he said, and communities will need to bolster underground supplies to keep it out.

''We're going to need that 300 million gallons of water we're dumping in the ocean every day,'' he said.

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