The Florida House voted Wednesday to ease the rules on discharging treated sewage into the ocean — a measure that could save Miami-Dade and Broward counties as much as $867 million and $620 million, respectively, and Hollywood as much as $174 million.
The move comes five years after the Florida Legislature began phasing out the use of ocean outfalls.
Lawmakers now want to let municipalities discharge as much as 5 percent of their annual treated sewage flow into the ocean, but only during “peak flow events” like when flooding is likely following a hurricane.
Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the bill’s sponsor, described the proposed changes as “tweaks” to existing law that would save local governments hundreds of millions of dollars “without hurting the environment.”
“It’s important to follow the law and keep the environment safe,” said Diaz, a Hialeah Republican. “This gives [municipalities] some flexibility in meeting those requirements.”
The House voted unanimously to support the proposal. The Senate cast a 40-0 vote in support of the bill last week.
Still, some environmentalists are holding out hope that Gov. Rick Scott will have a different opinion.
“All this is going to do is allow Miami-Dade County to shuck and jive around what it has to do, which is develop a climate-ready critical infrastructure system,” said Albert Slap, a Key Biscayne attorney who represents the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, a clean-water advocacy group. “This is short-term political expediency at the expense of real leadership.”
Only three local governments in Florida use ocean outflows: Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and Hollywood. Collectively, they pump about 71 billion gallons of treated sewage into the ocean each year.
That will have to stop in 2025, when the flushing of treated sewage into the ocean will be prohibited.
Representatives for the municipalities say meeting that deadline will cost millions of dollars. Some of the cost, they concede, will be likely passed on to ratepayers. A 2008 analysis from the University of Florida estimated that households using an average of 7,500 gallons a month will have to pay an extra $19.80 per month if the outflow pipes are shut down completely.
Diaz has said that Miami-Dade, Broward and Hollywood have come a long way toward reducing the amount of wastewater that is discharged through the outfalls, and that the municipalities should have some flexibility.
His bill would also provide the municipalities with more ways to meet the requirement to reuse 60 percent of the wastewater.
Slap, the environmental attorney, called the proposal “short sighted.” He said Miami-Dade should focus on cleaning its wastewater and returning it to the Biscayne Aquifer — a move that would fight off salt water intrusion.
“That is expensive to do and it will require the communities to raise the water and sewer rates over the next 10 years,” Slap said. “But it will ensure that we can continue to inhabit South Florida for a long time.”
Diaz hopes Miami-Dade, Broward and Hollywood will use their savings generated by the bill to address those larger questions.
“Hopefully, they can take the money and invest it in the infrastructure that is needed,” Diaz said. “That makes more sense than spending the money to arbitrarily comply with a law.”
Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.