Posted on Monday, 04.11.11
POLITICAL CURRENTS | THE LEGISLATURE
A measure advancing in the Legislature would give three South Florida counties and one city more time and leeway in phasing out how much sewage they flush into the Atlantic Ocean.
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By Patricia Mazzei
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — Three years ago, state lawmakers set a timeline for South Florida to stop pumping 300 million of gallons of sewage a day into the ocean — and to treat most of the region’s wastewater to reuse for irrigation, industry and other purposes.
But that was before population growth stalled, reducing the need for more water, and before local governments felt the full impact of the economy’s dive, leading to fresh sticker shock for the pricey water-treatment projects.
Now two Miami Republicans are pushing to loosen the sewage restrictions and extend the deadlines for six plants in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to comply with the rules.
The measure put forth by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Rep. Carlos Trujillo would give the plants five more years – from 2018 to 2023 – to upgrade from minimal to advanced treatments for wastewater reuse.
The sewage discharged into the Atlantic Ocean is screened of its worst components but still rich in nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus dangerous for, say, watering lawns.
Environmentalists, divers and some scientists say the wastewater has damaged beaches, marine life and coral reefs. And more of the treated sewage, they say, could be recycled for other uses, including recharging the underground aquifers that supply fresh water.
Under the bill, as the ocean-dumping practice is phased out, the plants would be given more leeway on what and how much sewage would have to be treated — a move that could result in more wastewater being spewed into the ocean than originally stipulated in state law.
The entire practice is still scheduled to shut down, with provisions for limited backup use, by 2025.
An original draft of this year’s proposal would have pushed back that date by five years. But the diving industry fought back and now favors the amended version.
“We just want the outfall pipes closed,” said Bob Harris, a lobbyist for the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association. “It has been for a long time an embarrassment, and our divers see the impact on the reefs.”
The measure also has the backing of Florida’s cities and counties associations. Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and the city of Hollywood, which operates one of the plants in question, would save hundreds of millions of dollars with the changes — including $867 million in capital outlay costs for infrastructure in Miami-Dade alone.
Savings to operating costs, Diaz de la Portilla said, would amount to $4 billion to $5 billion over two decades.
At the bill’s second Senate committee stop Monday, Diaz de la Portilla characterized the bill as one that would keep consumers from seeing rate hikes on their water bills.
“Folks need some relief,” he said.
The bill, which has advanced to the House floor, faced no opposition at the Senate community affairs committee. But a couple of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have voted against the proposal in other panels.
The rest of the state recycles more water than Southeast Florida, home to the last remaining pipes dumping sewage one to three miles out into the Atlantic.
One of them, Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, said he feared South Florida officials would lobby for another extension down the line.
“Sometimes,” he said at a committee last month, “you’ve just got to bite the bullet to clean this thing up.”
Patricia Mazzei can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.