The battle between Miami-Dade County and federal and state environmental regulators over fixing the county’s decrepit sewage system has gone on so long that concerns about rising sea levels have now entered the fray.
When the county and the Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection entered into consent decrees in 1994 and 1995 that outlined the county’s upgrade of its sewage and water treatment system to stop toxic leaks, the effects of global warming were not very common topics outside of scientific circles.
But now, 18 years later, with the county still not in compliance with those two consent decrees, and with the two sides negotiating yet a new agreement, the specter of an encroaching Atlantic Ocean onto Miami-Dade’s shoreline looms over the talks. Environmental groups have urged that the negotiators abandon a plan to upgrade the aging, outdated — and flood-vulnerable — Virginia Key sewage-treatment plant and replace it with a facility located much further inland.
One environmental group, Biscayne Bay Waterkeepers, has sought intervention in the negotiations in federal court, citing numerous concerns that, without proper oversight by outside experts and affected groups, the negotiations will produce a flawed solution to the problem of repeated dumping of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay and its tributaries, as well as inundations on streets and in homes.
The county and the regulators wrongly oppose this quest for more public access, adding more unnecessary legal costs and further deepening suspicions that they won’t get this right.
The county has no one but itself to blame for this stinky situation, and to their credit, many county officials acknowledge this. The trouble began after the two consent decrees were approved in the ’90s. For awhile, the county made a good-faith effort to repair sewage lines and make improvements at its three treatment plants. But it could never afford to completely follow through because for years the county government pulled millions of dollars of revenue out of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department to beef up the general revenue fund.
At the same time, the County Commission refused to raise water and sewer rates, some of the country’s lowest. So the county’s 14,000 miles of sewer lines continue to leak and break. In the last two years alone, lines have ruptured at least 65 times, spilling more than 47 million gallons of raw sewage. Last summer the EPA and the Justice Department finally cracked down, threatening huge fines for non-compliance with federal laws. Negotiations began again.
A county study determined that it would cost $1.1 billion to meet compliance standards. And scientists weighed in on the threat that rising sea levels pose to the treatment system. To their credit, county leaders last year halted the $25 million annual raid on WASD’s revenue stream. And the commission has approved modest rate increases in recent years.
But paying for the total upgrade will require a combination of more rate hikes, grants and revenue bonds, all demanding a healthy dose of political backbone. Simply by not raiding WASD’s treasury each year, the county would allow the department to pay debt service on $300 million in revenue bonds.
Yet with such a dismal history, environmental groups and local government watchdogs have a justified right to seek access to the negotiations before the resulting agreement is sent to a federal judge for final approval.
No more Band-Aids. Rebuild Miami-Dade’s water and sewer treatment system to meet the myriad challenges, including the encroaching sea, of the 21st Century.