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Florida Legislature set to bar dumping of treated sewage into ocean

Sun-Sentinel - 4/17/2008 12:00:00 AM
by Linda Kleindienst and David Fleshler

South Florida may soon face a deadline to stop dumping treated sewage into the ocean, and local residents could face higher bills to pay for improved water treatment.

One legislator predicts a "massive increase" in sewer rates, and the city of Hollywood estimates monthly bills eventually could rise by as much as $90.

The Florida Senate on Wednesday voted unanimously to end the use of sewage outfall pipes by 2025, and the House is expected to follow suit before the legislative session adjourns May 2.

Six pipelines from Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties dump 300 million gallons of sewage a day about two miles offshore, much of it onto reefs that attract recreational divers and anglers.

"It's easy to find. You can fly over it and see all the treated effluent bubbling to the surface because that water is less dense and warmer … and rises quickly to the surface," said Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, chairman of the Senate's Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee. "This sewage is treated to the lowest possible standard under Florida law. It's a practice that just isn't proper."

The six pipes are in Delray Beach, Boca Raton, Pompano Beach, Hollywood and northern and central Miami-Dade County. Although the discharge areas attract fish and recreational fishermen, Saunders told his colleagues, "I wouldn't recommend eating those fish."

The bill immediately outlaws new outfall pipes and requires wastewater discharged by the existing South Florida pipes to meet stricter treatment standards by 2018. The pipes would be shut by 2025, except for emergency use, and by that time 60 percent of the water that had been going into the ocean would have to be recycled for reuse.

The proposal could raise monthly sewer bills in Hollywood by $50 to $90, with rates starting to rise in two years or so, said Albert Perez, city utilities director. Hollywood would have to build facilities to treat the water now being dumped into the sea to almost drinkable standards, he said.

Perez said he has addressed civic associations about the likely impact of shutting the city's outfall pipe, and that people are worried.

"You have a state going through a fiscal crisis, property taxes, and now the possibility of seeing an increase in water and sewer rates is a concern," he said.

Broward County operates a pipe that discharges off Pompano Beach. County utility officials could not be reached Wednesday for comment or an estimate on the likely impact on utility bills.

The new restrictions would have the least effect on Palm Beach County, where water authorities are already moving to phase out the two outfall pipes.

Boca Raton recycles 60 percent of its wastewater — used by major water users like golf courses and Lynn University for irrigation — and expects to hit 100 percent within the next five to seven years, said Chris Helfrich, the city's utilities director. Rates have already gone up 12 percent and most likely will not go up again.

Pipeline foes, including environmental and diving groups, have claimed the sewage is killing South Florida's reefs and could endanger the health of swimmers.

"Responsible treatment of sewage is a basic function of government, much more than building a sports stadium or planting a thousand palm trees at every intersection," said Ed Tichenor, director of Palm Beach County Reef Rescue, which has long campaigned against the pipes.

He contends that the sewage discharges fertilize algae blooms that smother coral reefs.

The sewage plant operated by Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, long the target of criticism from environmentalists, has already agreed to stop sending water through its outfall pipe, said Robert Hagel, executive director of the South Central Wastewater Treatment and Disposal Plant.

While the state would provide some financial help for the local utilities to defray the expense of improving sewage treatment and finding ways to use the resulting product, local utility customers would have to picking up most of the bill. A University of Florida study of the impact of shutting down the pipes estimated that a household using an average of 7,500 gallons a month could pay an extra $19.80 per month.