As Miami-Dade negotiates with federal authorities over fixing its antiquated water and sewer system, the public is getting a preview of the massive costs taxpayers will have to shoulder.
County residents, who have long enjoyed some of the lowest water rates in the nation, could see the typical quarterly bill rise to $180 from $135, or an increase of 33 percent, over the next five years. Plans call for annual rate increases ranging from 5 to 8 percent over that time, starting with Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s recommendation for an 8 percent hike in next year’s budget.
The increases surely will not stop after that, as county leaders search for ways to pay for a 12-year, $12.6 billion plan to fix thousands of miles of crumbling underground water pipelines and three degraded main sewage treatment plants.
County Commission Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa said she plans to explore if state or federal money is available, but understands those dollars are getting more and more difficult to obtain.
“We cannot continue to do what we’ve done in the past,” Sosa said. “The conversation we have to have with the mayor is how to do it without imposing too much on taxpayers.”
The U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency sued the county in December, saying it hasn’t adhered to the federal Clean Water Act. In response, commissioners gave preliminary approval two weeks ago to — over time — selling $4.25 billion in bonds, enough to fix about one-third of the antiquated system.
The county also has about $160 million already available in bond money for sewer repairs.
The most expensive item will be upgrading or replacing the county’s three main water treatment plants in South Miami-Dade, North Miami-Dade and Virginia Key. The county also plans on replacing hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of miles of rotting pipes that have ruptured over the past decade.
The mere size of the public works project has made it a high-profile issue at County Hall.
Last week, Gimenez canceled bid solicitations for two closely watched portions of the work, taking the unusual step of overriding his own administrators and drawing attention to the politics involved in the decision-making.
Gimenez ordered the administration to draft new requests for proposals for the projects and go out to bid again. It was his first such action as mayor, his office said.
Last month, several county commissioners complained about the solicitations that had been published. Miami-Dade administrators are responsible for drafting solicitations. But commissioners like to have their say on major — or contentious — bids. The water and sewer overhaul is expected to require at least six or seven solicitations.
The county first realized it had a problem last summer when it received a series of letters from federal regulators documenting how the decrepit system ruptured at least 65 times from 2010 to 2012, spewing more than 47 million gallons of untreated sewage into the waterways and streets from one end of the county to the other.
Federal authorities labeled the Central District Wastewater Plant on Virginia Key as the worst offender, with four spills and 19 million gallons of sewage spewed over the two-year period. The plant handles about 25 million gallons of raw sewage a day from Surfside, Bal Harbour and Miami Beach.
Negotiations between the sides began immediately with the hopes of reaching an agreement called a “consent decree.” The court has ordered a final deal by June 24.
In December, the feds filed the anticipated lawsuit demanding the county take measures to prevent the overflow of pollutants, prevent blockages, and repair deteriorating and broken sewer lines, pumps and force mains. It threatened fines of up to $37,500 a day if corrections aren’t made.
In the two solicitations since jettisoned by Gimenez, the county had requested proposals from experienced firms to oversee and plan the major water and sewer projects. Miami-Dade intends to issue additional solicitations in coming months to pick companies to actually perform the work.
Beyond quality-of-life and environmental impacts, the water and sewer system flaws can hurt local business development, too. Last year, a proposed project in the West Grove was placed on hold indefinitely because the Grove’s main pump station had reached maximum output.
There are now more than 50 permits being held up for businesses in Coconut Grove that want to build or expand, county administrators said.
On Tuesday, Biscayne Bay Waterkeepers, a local activist group whose goal is to keep the bay clean, will go before U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno seeking to become interveners in the government’s lawsuit. They’ve been pushing federal authorities and the county to include projected impacts of storm surge and sea level rise in any consent agreement.
Doug Yoder, deputy director of the water and sewer department, said the county has already studied estimated costs associated with sea level rise and storm surge, especially in the wake of the damage done by Hurricane Sandy last September.
The New York Times recently reported that breaches in water treatment facilities caused more than 10 billion gallons of raw and partly treated sewage to gush into waterways and bubble up onto streets and into homes as a result of the Category 1 storm. Damage to the facilities alone was estimated at more than $600 million.
Yoder said electrical problems from storm surge shut down the county’s southern-most plant near Cutler Bay for two weeks after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.