Environment

County moves toward using wastewater in FPL canals, but won’t set water standards yet

FPL wants to use treated wastewater to help freshen aging cooling canals that have become too salty and created a massive underground saltwater plume. Environmentalists warn the wastewater needs to be treated to higher standards required for water entering Biscayne Bay.
FPL wants to use treated wastewater to help freshen aging cooling canals that have become too salty and created a massive underground saltwater plume. Environmentalists warn the wastewater needs to be treated to higher standards required for water entering Biscayne Bay. emichot@miamiherald.com

A plan to use treated wastewater to freshen Florida Power & Light’s troubled nuclear cooling canals will move forward, for now, without meeting strict water standards set for nearby Biscayne Bay.

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade commissioners authorized the county staff to negotiate the deal, but put off setting the standards.

Instead, terms of the costly treatment will be ironed out as the utility and the county staff work out details. Any project will ultimately come back to commissioners for final approval. But by then, critics worry it may be too late.

“Once we build a reuse treatment plant, we’re not building it again,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, the only commissioner to vote against the plan. “That’s why we have to think about the future.”

Mayor Carlos Gimenez pitched the deal in January as a simple solution to two thorny problems: meeting a state deadline to reuse up to 60 percent of the county’s wastewater and cleaning up the aging canals. On Thursday he said including standards now would complicate the process.

“We need to put the right water in the right place and the right quality in the right place,” he said. “Right now it would be premature to put any standard in it.”

FPL canal aerial
Cooling canals at Turkey Point that cover nearly 6,000 acres have been fueling an underground saltwater plume threatening drinking water wellfields and leaking into Biscayne Bay. Emily Michot Copy Photo

Environmentalists have also objected, warning that putting wastewater into the leaky canals could worsen pollution in the bay.

Two years ago, after years of mounting evidence that the salty canals were helping fuel a massive underground saltwater plume, county environmental regulators confirmed canal water had begun leaking into the bay. Evaporation combined with rising temperatures in the canals had caused water to become increasingly salty and sink, creating the plume. The utility is now in the midst of a $200 million cleanup.

The utility is also struggling with an uncertain future for the power plant. Two new reactors were shelved amid mounting construction costs last year. FPL instead plans on applying to extend the operating license of the two existing units, which are nearly 50 years old, by another 20 years.

At Tuesday’s meeting Cava tried to make it clear that the county did not support the continued use of the canals. Last year, the commission voted to urge staff to retire them.

But it now appears the reuse plan will help support extension.

“For us to move forward with the project, the … license renewal will have to occur,” FPL vice president Mike Sole said. “Otherwise we can’t make an investment on what will be a very short term for that project.”

Commissioner Rebeca Sosa also proposed including stricter water standards, but Sole objected, citing the expense.

“It would truly be like using boutique water to water your plants,” Sole said.

Sosa also insisted that the county report back on the status of the canals in a year to ensure progress is made.

bnp aerial
Any water entering Biscayne Bay, part of a national park, must meet strict standards developed specifically for the bay because of its low tolerance for pollution. Biscayne National Park

Cava also pointed out that 16 months ago, she asked the county staff to come up with a more thorough plan for reusing wastewater that addressed efforts to help revive coastal wetlands. Reusing wastewater was originally part of a 2000 Everglades Restoration plan that shared the cost with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Cava finally received a plan of 400-plus pages late Monday.

“It was four months late, but that’s not so bad,” she quipped. “The idea of working with FPL to reuse water has great promise, but it’s not enough.”

The proposed new facility would be able to treat up to 60 million gallons of wastewater a day, enough to generate 45 million gallons a day of usable water. Up to 15 million gallons would be used daily to cool the natural gas unit and 30 million gallons for the canals. Sole said meeting strict water quality standards could make the project too expensive.

“We understand it is more expensive, but there are also opportunities,” Cava said. ‘We would rather have water that would be really good for our environment, and not just the cooling canals.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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