Repair bill over $1 billion to fix crumbling Miami-Dade water, sewage system, report says

Miami-Dade County’s three main water treatment plants and nearly 14,000 miles of pipelines are so outdated it would take more than $1.1 billion just to replace the “most deteriorated, vulnerable sections” of the system, a newly released internal study shows.

Corrosion is so pervasive in the county’s water and sewage-treatment plants, and pipes that move water and sewage, that initial repairs could take from three to eight years, the five-month study found.

Each day 300 million gallons of waste and 459 million gallons of drinking water pass through the county’s system — the 10th largest water-and-sewer utility in the nation.

“The infrastructure we have out there is aged,” said John Renfrow, director of the water and sewer department. “Many of the pipes with leaks out there were built at the same time. It reminds me of an apartment where all the lights are put in at the same time, and you know how all the lights go out at the same time.”

Federal regulators told the county two months ago that it must perform repairs and upgrades. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice, along with the state Department of Environmental Protection, are expected to take another four months discussing with Miami-Dade how to fix and pay for a system that Renfrow said is “being held together by chewing gum.”

The study, requested by Commissioner Barbara Jordan, shows the majority of the initial fixes — about $736 million of immediate work — is needed for sewer lines. Water lines would take another $364 million to repair.

The county’s main water treatment in Hialeah, and two sewage plants, on Virginia Key and in South Miami-Dade, are 56, 45 and 87 years old, respectively.

Fixing wire and concrete erosion in pipes would cost about $10 million, and fixing water mains, tanks and pumps would cost another $129.4 million, the study estimated.

Using Hialeah’s John E. Preston water treatment plant as a typical example, the report noted that it “has numerous mechanical, electrical and process components which have exceeded the end of their useful economic service lives, which is usually 20 years.” A picture in the report shows a collapsed interior wall in the plant, which has been in operation since 1966.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said not much in the report surprised him.

Gimenez, Renfrow and several commissioners agree it’s going to take a combination of rate hikes, grants and revenue bonds to get the system up to date.

They said a budget decision to forego borrowing $25 million from the water and sewer coffers this year is a good start. That money, if left untouched each year unlike in the past, when it was moved to the county’s general fund, could pay the debt service on a $300 million bond, they said.

And despite not wanting to raise taxes or fees as the economy stumbles along, Gimenez and several commissioners say they expect a water rate hike in the near future. Historically, Miami-Dade has one of the lowest water rates in the state.

The county’s aging system — not unlike similar systems in most major cities throughout the Unites States — is in such disrepair that it has ruptured at least 65 times over the past two years, spilling more than 47 million gallons of untreated human waste into waterways and streets from one end of the county to the other.

Just this week a 36-inch main gave way in Little Haiti, leaving several families distraught and in search of a place to stay until their homes dry out.

Renfrow said his department will pay for home repairs.

“The funny thing is we checked the Little Haiti pipes in June for leaks. We didn’t miss anything,’’ he said. “The material is just old, it’s just going to break.’’

Similar main breaks were the focus of warning letters sent by federal authorities to the county from 2010 through May, when they finally came calling. The letters warned of possible civil penalties of up to $10,000 a day.

Talks between the county and the feds are expected to lead to an agreement over repairs and upgrades, as well as the funding mechanism.

“How it will be paid for will be figure out by us,” Gimenez said.

The report notes that the funding methods are not likely to be similar to the early 1970s when Congress passed the Clean Water Act, and grants were available for about 75 percent of repairs.