A bill making its way through the Legislature would dump 5 billion gallons of treated sewage into the ocean every year, but save South Florida’s utility ratepayers at least $1.3 billion.
The bill changes a 2008 law that told utilities to completely stop flushing treated sewage into the ocean through pipes by 2025, to save coral reefs and marine ecosystems. A 2008 DEP study decided “the weight of the evidence” showed the sewage was harming South Florida’s coastal marine life.
The amendment allows utilities to pump a reduced amount of sewage into the ocean annually after the 2025 deadline. They could pipe out 5 percent of their annual sewage flow, which totals over 5 billion gallons a year. Right now, utilities pump a total of about 71 billion gallons of treated sewage into the ocean a year.
All the pipes affected by the bill, which is in the Senate Budget Committee and has passed the House unanimously, are located in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. If the bill passes the committee, it goes to the full Senate, where it would be likely to pass.
“This is done in the best interest of the public, because it’s such significant savings to them,” said Alan Garcia, Broward’s water and wastewater director. “We’re still meeting most of the original goal.”
A University of Florida study in 2008 estimated that a household using an average of 7,500 gallons a month could pay an extra $19.80 per month if utilities have to shut down the pipes completely. That number would go down if this bill passes, utility directors said.
The change to the 2008 law doesn’t affect ratepayers in Palm Beach County as much. Delray Beach‘s pipe shut down in 2008 and Boca Raton has reduced its ocean flow by half, and plans to shut its pipe down by 2015.
The original ban also aimed to save reusable water from being lost into the ocean.
It told utilities to find a way to reuse 60 percent of sewage for irrigation, watering lawns and even recharging the drinking water aquifer. The amendment doesn’t change that.
But Divon Quirolo, founder of Reef Relief, an activist organization that pushed for the 2008 law, wonders whether utilities hope to slowly get out of the original law.
She cites the fact that the current bill also pushes back a deadline for utilities to have a permitted plan for meeting the law’s requirements from July 2013 to October 2014. None of the three utilities pushing for the bill has gotten beyond the planning stages of their major water reuse projects over the past four years.
“They’re trying to delay, avoid and weaken,” Quirolo said.
The reason South Florida would save so much money if utilities could pump just 5 percent of sewage out to sea has to do with “peak flow events,” utility directors said, which are heavy rains or other events that suddenly overburden regular sewage treatment systems.
Hollywood, Miami-Dade County and Broward County say they would have to build multimillion dollar wells to inject that “peak flow” into the ground unless they can just keep dumping into the Atlantic. They all already have wells to inject water into the ground, but would need another to deal with peak flow.
While the amendment is good news for anyone with a sewage bill in Broward or Miami-Dade counties, the change is bad news for fish, coral and beaches.
Saving reefs and ecosystems was a major reason lawmakers passed the 2008 law.
Many scientists say the treated sewage, which contains chemicals from human pharmaceuticals and bathrooms products and nutrients that can cause algae blooms, has destroyed the ocean environment off South Florida’s coasts.
The water is screened of solids but doesn’t meet standards for watering a lawn or a field of crops.
“When the money isn’t there, the government wants to argue there’s no need for it,” said Matthew Schwartz, environmental activist and executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “Meanwhile, our coral reefs and marine ecosystems are being destroyed.”
The amendment was sponsored by representatives and senators from Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
But since Delray Beach shut down its pipe in 2008, it has had to open it again on three occasions.
They’ve pumped out about 1 percent a year out to sea, “nowhere near 5 percent,” said Dennis Coates, executive director of the plant.
Still, he does hope to keep pumping that much after the deadline. They wouldn’t need nearly 5 percent, but for peak flows it would be nice to use the ocean pipe.
“This change allows us to not build a duplicate injection system that we would use a few days a year,” Garcia said. “That gives us a lot more efficiency for our dollars.”
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