cash-strapped water and sewer utility needs a revamp to appease
environmental regulators and meet future demand. It won't come
Revamping Miami-Dade's waterworks to appease
state officials likely will cost the county hundreds of millions
of dollars in new technology and infrastructure -- a monumental
challenge for a cash-strapped utility.
Faced with recent criticism from the state
Department of Environmental Protection and local water managers,
Miami-Dade is under unprecedented pressure to come up with new
water sources to support its booming population.
Citing the threat of environmental damage to
the Everglades, the state also is demanding that Miami-Dade
diversify its water sources. It now mostly depends on the
relatively cheap Biscayne Aquifer.
If the county fails to comply, it could face
state-imposed restrictions on future development.
Preliminary estimates suggest the cost of
modernizing the county's waterworks could be ''anywhere between
$400 million and $800 million,'' said county budget director
Jennifer Glazer-Moon, who stressed that ``those numbers are very
The county has hired private consultants to
look at its future water supply. Its options include increasing
the amount of water it treats and reuses. Miami-Dade's reusage
rate, at 5 percent, is one of the state's worst.
Miami-Dade may have to invest in solutions
such as reverse osmosis and desalinization to make brackish water
''It all boils down to money,'' said newly
appointed water and sewer chief John Renfrow. He was tapped for
the post less than three weeks ago, after the resignation of
former director Bill Brant amid revelations that the county's
long-term water plans were alarmingly short-sighted.
Under new growth management laws enacted by
the Legislature last year, counties are required to show they have
the water to supply the demands of growth. For the first time, the
state will add water supply to its list of criteria when reviewing
proposed development. That could affect the current slate of
applications asking to change the county's zoning blueprint --
including a push from developers to build offices and homes at the
edge of the Everglades.
Coming up with solutions will require a
philosophical revamp as well -- from customers accustomed to
paying one of the lowest water bill rates in the country, and from
policymakers wary of raising rates. ''There is going to have to be
a culture change,'' Renfrow said. ``And that means educating the
public and working with the politicians.''
Renfrow, formerly head of the county's
department of environmental regulation, has his work cut out for
For more than a decade, Miami-Dade has
siphoned more than $260 million from the water utility into the
county's general fund to use for a broad range of expenses, such
as county salaries and upkeep for departments and agencies.
Those transfers began when Miami-Dade
brushed against a state-imposed limit on property taxes but still
needed more money, Glazer-Moon said.
The practice troubled some leaders,
including Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Commissioner Carlos
''That money could have been spent on the
water and sewer system,'' said Gimenez, who took office in 2004.
While the county pulled water revenue into
the general fund, Miami-Dade's commissioners voted to keep water
In 2001, the commission cut water rates by
10 percent after one of the worst droughts in Florida's history --
even though the county had fallen far short of statewide
''Frankly, we're doing everything we can
right now, short of raising the rates, which nobody wants to do,''
Brant told the commission during the 2001 drought.
As a result, the public utility's reserves
have been depleted. The water department's long-term capital
projects, originally to cost $1.7 billion, were recently scaled
back by $400 million.
Bond engineers warned last year that the
water system's deficiencies could affect public health and safety
-- and possibly cause major equipment failure -- if the county
didn't fund a catch-up program of $47.6 million a year for the
next five years to repair treatment facilities.
The department has even floated the idea of
selling its five-year-old headquarters for $25 million, just to
make ends meet.
And that was before a contingent of
state environmental regulators and regional water management
officials delivered a blunt ultimatum -- supported by Gov. Jeb
Bush -- to county leaders last month.
They criticized Miami-Dade's long-term water
plan -- which emphasized continued use of the Biscayne Aquifer --
as environmentally unsound. They said it threatened the ambitious
state-federal Everglades restoration plan and warned that new
state laws tying development to water supply could force state
agencies to clamp down on the county's future growth.
Miami-Dade's population is the thirstiest in
the state, using 350 million gallons a day. The county projected
it would need an additional 100 million gallons a day to support a
20-year growth plan -- something the South Florida Water
Management District, responsible for the water supply in 16
counties from near Orlando to the Florida Keys, said it won't
agree to until the county comes up with a better plan.
A GOOD EXAMPLE
Other counties across Florida have done a
better job of embracing alternatives.
Collier County, for example, has a nearly
100 percent water reuse rate -- something that county singled out
as a priority in the 1990s.
''There's only a certain amount of fresh
water available,'' said Paul Mattausch, director of Collier's
water department. ``And there are a lot of competing users for it
-- including the Everglades. We knew we had to look at the long
Collier's water usage is tiny compared to
Miami-Dade, sucking in roughly 25 million gallons a day. But about
60 percent of that comes from brackish water sources made potable
through reverse osmosis.
Reverse osmosis pulls water through a series
of plastic membranes that removes solids and chemicals such as
chlorides. It's cost Collier County. A reverse osmosis plant that
came online in 2004 cost $40 million.
The high-tech process means Collier's
utility pays more for treated water: About $1.10 per 1,000 gallons
treated through reverse osmosis versus $.85 for fresh water pulled
from the Tamiami Aquifer. Water drawn from Tampa Bay -- processed
through one of the newest seawater-processing plants in the
country -- costs between $3 and $4 per 1,000 gallons.
Miami-Dade is taking measures to strengthen
the water utility's finances, even if it has yet to decide on
alternative water strategies.
The transfer of water revenue to the general
fund will stop later this year, Glazer-Moon said. The county also
has worked to boost the department's maintenance reserves -- which
bond engineers had cited as unacceptably low.
Commissioners approved a 7.7 percent water
rate hike this year -- which would cost the average customer a
little over $2 a month. The county plans to peg future water rates
to a federal formula that would keep increases on par with water
increases countrywide, which would raise revenue.
There will likely be rough waters ahead,
''This isn't going to happen overnight, but
there has to be a culture change,'' Renfrow said. ``There's going
to be a big price tag.''