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Miami-Dade's cash-strapped water and sewer utility needs a revamp to appease environmental regulators and meet future demand. It won't come cheap.


tfigueras@MiamiHerald.com

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 hazy.''

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 potable.

''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.

NEW LAWS

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 him.

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 Gimenez.

''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 rates low.

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 conservation goals.

''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 term.''

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, however.

''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.''