New long-term bill for Miami-Dade water and sewer repairs could top $12 billion

Water and Sewer Director John Renfrow warned some Miami-Dade commissioners that the repair bill for the county’s water and sewer system could be as high as $12 billion over the next 15 years.

09/17/2012 3:56 PM

09/17/2012 4:56 PM

Repairing, replacing and rebuilding 13,000 miles of aging and brittle water and sewage pipes and the treatment plants they connect to could cost Miami-Dade County more than $12 billion over the next 15 years.

That staggering amount — a huge jump from the billion-dollar total that had been previously discussed — was relayed to commissioners by county water and sewer director John Renfrow during a brief, lightly-attended committee meeting last week that left some stunned, and the public grabbing for their wallets.

“It’s going to take time and it’s going to take money,” Renfrow told members of the Infrastructure and Land Use Committee during an 18-minute presentation. “That’s the bad news. The good news is the shot in the arm the economy will get.”

Calling it “the topper” of all projects, Renfrow said that, when complete, the total cost will surpass the $7 billion spent to refurbish Miami International Airport and the $10 billion planned for Everglades restoration. If the $12 billion figure is accurate, it would be enough to build about 24 stadiums for the Miami Marlins, or just as many new performing arts centers.

What Renfrow did not explain to commissioners was that the $12 billion figure is not the number demanded by federal authorities who continue to grapple with the county over repairs to the aging system that must be immediately done to meet the Clean Water Act. That number is closer to $1.4 billion. The $12 billion is part of a long-range capital improvement plan that includes new sewage and water lines and new state-of-the-art plants for the six sites that now treat water and sewage.

As part of a deal to meet federal requirements, county water officials released a list of $1.4 billion in fixes the county hopes to start on soon. Among them are $948 million in fixes to three water-treatment plants in Goulds, North Miami and Virginia Key. There are another $405 million in projects throughout Dade.

The 15-year capital-improvement project calls for across-the-board fixes to water and sewage lines in neighborhoods throughout Dade. The 266-page plan calls for almost $5 billion in future bonds, $209 million in general obligation bonds, and the rest of the money to come from water bills and various grants and revenue sources such as water connection charges and rock-mining fees.

Still, the combination of short-range and long-range plans will be a bitter pill to swallow for Dade taxpayers, who Renfrow said could expect to see their water bills double or triple and their debt rise on bond payments by the billions over the next 15 years. County water bills are currently among the lowest in the nation, according to Miami-Dade officials.

“They should have started [repairs] 15 years ago,” said Sierra Club volunteer and environmental activist Blanca Mesa. “Maybe they should cancel some of the planned projects, like the tunnel or the museums. It sounds like they have an emergency on their hands.”

Though the county continues to meet with federal authorities on inking out a plan to repair the brittle piping that snakes its way mile after mile underground, Renfrow said he expects to confront commissioners in the spring with a request to sell $300 million worth of bonds to get the work started to meet federal standards.

“That’s a drop in the bucket,” Commissioner Audrey Edmonson said at last week’s meeting.

Though the county’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 does not provide for any water-rate increases, it does project a 9-percent rate hike in 2013-14 — followed by an additional 6 percent increase each year over the next three years.

At a preliminary budget hearing earlier this month, Commissioner Lynda Bell questioned whether the county should consider easing residents into the higher rates beginning this year.

“I’d much rather see it gradually than just one big hit,” she said.

County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said it will likely take a combination of water-bill hikes and bonds to cover any agreement with the feds. The county has scheduled three community meetings for next week, and Renfrow said he expects a full plan signed off by the federal government that he can present to commissioners by March.

“We don’t have the complete picture yet, but we’re getting there,” Renfrow said.

The city of Cincinnati, which recovered from a similar problem about a decade ago, spent $1.5 billion on fixes after negotiations with the federal government. The city also agreed to set up a victim’s compensation fund, in which the water and sewer department agreed to pay for injuries caused by the faulty system.

Regulators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection descended on Miami-Dade in May with a 78-page consent decree, declaring the county had violated sections of the Clean Water Act, along with terms and conditions of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems permit.

The county’s aging sewage system has ruptured more than 65 times over the past two years, spilling over 47 million gallons of untreated human waste into waterways and streets from South Dade to the Broward County line. Those breaks were documented in letters sent to Miami-Dade by environmental regulators over the past two years. The letters also warned that the county could be on the hook for damages and restoration and penalties as high as $10,000 a day.

The EPA estimates there are up to a quarter-million line breaks around the country each year, as struggling cities continue to deal with sewage systems that in some cases are 100 years old.

Miami-Dade was last hit with a consent decree in 1996, eventually settling on a $2 million payment. Back then the problem was a lack of capacity to drain water overflows. Now, despite spending more than $2 billion in repairs, the problem is leaky and breaking pipes, as well as aging water treatment plants in need of new technology.

The county’s Central District Wastewater Plant on Virginia Key is desperately in need of repair, having failed four times between October and December 2011, when it sent 19 million gallons spilling from the facility.

Just last week the county had to close down sections of Bird Road from Southwest 37th to 57th avenues, well-populated neighborhoods that run from South Miami through Coral Gables. Water & Sewer spokeswoman Jennifer Messemer said the county was forced to build manholes so workers could gain access to faulty pipes under the roadway.

“The Bird Road pipes are in critical condition now,” said Renfrow.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

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