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Miami Beach Lost Half Its Sewage Capacity. Age Was Partly To Blame

Bibi Andrade
About 1.4 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into parts of Biscayne Bay last week after three sewer line breaks. This photo was taken by comic artist Bibi Andrade in North Beach.

Miami Beach joined the ranks of South Florida cities battling aging sewer systems when three sewer line breaks knocked out half the city’s sewer capacity last week, dumping nearly 1.4 million gallons of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay.

After a driller working on a Florida Power & Light drainage well ruptured a 42-inch main line near Lincoln Road, pressure shifted to a frail, 30-inch line installed a half century ago, Public Works Director Roy Coley said Tuesday.

The city tried to protect the line, he said. It asked residents to cut back on water use and flushing to reduce flow. It brought in pumper trucks to suck up sewage where possible. Surfside, Bay Harbor Islands and Bal Harbour hired a dozen trucks to pump up sewage and keep it from heading to Miami Beach, which moves the sewage to Miami-Dade County’s Virginia Key treatment plant.

“We knew the 30 [inch line] couldn’t handle it all,” Coley said.

It couldn’t. Within hours, the line burst near a pump station less than a mile away, followed by a second break on Harding Avenue. The two additional breaks increased the sewage spill by a half million gallons, he said.

Credit Miami-Dade County
Miami-Dade County
A Miami-Dade County map shows the location of the sewer line breaks.

That pales compared to the more than 200 million gallons dumped by breaks in Fort Lauderdale’s old sewage infrastructure since December. But it highlights the same problem.

“We've identified [pipes] as old as 80 years old in our system,” Coley said. “They were installed and not much past the inception of the city and our city is over 100 years old.”

Miami Beach, Bal Harbour, Bay Harbor Islands and Surfside are now under a temporary sewer moratorium, said Miami-Dade County spokeswoman Tere Florin. That means no new sewer connections - that would add to flow amounts - until the Division of Environmental Regulation Management examines the systems and lifts the moratorium.

DERM has asked the city to provide information about underlying problems that could have caused the breaks, along with details about repairs and other work to prevent additional breaks, she said.

County environmental regulators are also sampling water. Miami Beach began sampling water last week and posted warnings at locations along the bay to steer clear of waters. Coley said the warnings were lifted as of Tuesday for all but one location: Park View Island at 73rd Street. A Miami Beach spokeswoman later said bay waters near Normandy Isle should also be avoided.

Florin said DERM is testing water at 11 locations. The agency expects to receive results by Wednesday evening, she said. Depending on the results, the county will continue testing until water samples show two consecutive days with bacteria counts at safe levels. Florin said the county and city would coordinate needed advisories, but did not say when or how those advisories, if needed, would be issued.

To address the problem going forward, Coley said he will ask the city commission at its March 18 meeting to approve $122 million in bond money to make repairs. The city has been mapping problems in the system for the last year in advance of the request.

“What this actually did was show our community that it's not something that just happens to somebody else,” he said. “It could happen here, too.”

This story was updated to include an additional water advisory.

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