The Florida Influencer Series

You asked: Why do we still dump sewage onto our beaches?

Mindy Borkson of Hollywood walks through a bed of seaweed washed up in Dania Beach earlier this summer. The surge of seaweed may have contributed to high bacteria readings on some beaches.
Mindy Borkson of Hollywood walks through a bed of seaweed washed up in Dania Beach earlier this summer. The surge of seaweed may have contributed to high bacteria readings on some beaches. Sun-Sentinel

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The Florida Influencers Series

This election year, the Miami Herald, the Bradenton Herald and El Nuevo Herald are driving a conversation on the important issues facing our state. We’ve assembled a panel of 50 influential Floridians to offer their views.

“Why do we still dump sewage onto our beaches? What’s the upside for an economy so dependent on tourism?”

The short answer to this question — posed by a reader using the Your Voice tool as part of our Florida Influencer Series, which taps the collective wisdom of 50 influential Floridians on topics important to the state in the run-up to the November election — is we don’t dump sewage on the beach.

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But we do dump treated waste in the ocean — at least in South Florida and for the time being.

In Miami-Dade County, we dump treated sewage about 3.6 miles offshore. The practice stems from the 1970s when the state allowed fast-growing coastal communities to flush treated wastewater offshore. Public health officials have long insisted that’s far enough away to dilute impacts to beaches.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, when it became increasingly clear that dumping had environmental consequences on reefs and marine life, newer communities began installing separate pipes to use the wastewater for irrigation, mostly on golf courses and farms. Then in 2008, Florida passed a law banning the outfall pipes by 2025 and requiring counties to begin reusing most of their wastewater.

But only if it was economically feasible. Across the state, most counties have now complied. The Treasure Coast and Palm Beach County reuse between 30 and 50 percent.

But Broward and Miami-Dade have lagged behind, reusing just 4 to 7 percent. Broward County solved its problem by cutting a deal with Palm Beach County to ship the water north.

But Miami-Dade County, which is under a 2014 federal court order to clean up its aging sewage system as part of a $1.6 billion consent decree, is still working out a plan. The county had planned on shutting down its two outfall pipes and sending most of its treated wastewater to Turkey Point to help cool two new reactors. But the plan fell apart when FPL shelved the reactors amid escalating reactor construction costs.

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The county is now negotiating with the utility to use the water in cooling canals covering 5,900 acres that began running hot and salty after more than 40 years of use.

But environmentalists have raised concerns over the quality of the wastewater, since the canals have leaked into Biscayne Bay and the bay can’t tolerate high amounts of nutrients found in treated wastewater. So the long answer is the county is still trying to fix the problem.

In recent months, the question of beach impacts has come up again, with some beaches off Key Biscayne closed repeatedly after health workers found high levels of bacteria.

But it’s not clear where the bacteria is coming from, and whether it’s human or animal. The Florida Department of Health’s Miami-Dade branch takes samples weekly to test for human waste bacteria and posts results on a web page. Spokeswoman Olga Connor said that there are many potential sources and that high amounts can be triggered by stormwater runoff carrying human, pet or wildlife waste.

outfall pipe map
Miami Waterkeeper found a leak in a massive sewage outfall last July less than a mile from Virginia Key. Miami Waterkeeper

Beach samples are only sampled for the bacteria, however, and not the source, since either can carry disease-causing pathogens. Seaweed can also carry bacteria and a large amount of seaweed washed ashore this year, following a similar uptick that started in 2011. The seaweed can also trap moisture in sand, where bacteria is also collected and allow it to grow more plentiful, said University of Miami environmental engineer Helena Solo-Gabriel.

“We don’t really know, but seaweed has been associated with elevated levels of bacteria,” she said. “The seaweed attracts birds and animals, so they could be a source.”

Bacteria can also come from swimmers and stormwater runoff and septic tanks, she said.

Last year, Miami Waterkeeper discovered one of the county’s outfall pipes, which can carry 143 million gallons of treated sewage each year, had been leaking for at least a year near Fisher Island. County environmental regulators said there were no reported beach closings linked to the leak and pointed out that the wastewater met safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

This story was inspired by a question submitted by a reader through the Your Voice tool, powered by Hearken. Our next question for this series concerns healthcare in Florida. Tell us what healthcare issues are most important to you this election year. Your responses will help guide our future coverage.