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A Year Since The Spills: Fort Lauderdale Sewage Problems A Sign Of Infrastructure Woes For Other Coastal Cities

A sewage spill at George English Park in Fort Lauderdale.
Caitie Switalski Muñoz
A sewage spill at George English Park in Fort Lauderdale.

The maxing-out, bulging-at-the-seams, gridlock you feel on the highway — is happening underground, too. Infrastructure across the state isn't measuring up to Florida's growing population. And that's not only happening in Fort Lauderdale.

A year ago, the biggest sewage spill in Florida's history was unfolding along the scenic waterways of Fort Lauderdale.

More than 211 million gallons spilled from 1970s-era pipes, flowing down streets, into lawns and, eventually, the city's scenic, postcard-ready canals.

"There would be times I would walk around the building, walking the dogs, and get hit with the smell of raw sewage," said Bob Garofalo.

Garofalo got so fed up he moved to Boca Raton a few years ago, and that was even before the worst of the spills.

"It would not be unusual to see one of those tank trucks outside, a day later, pumping what I can imagine out of that sewer line," he said.

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The city is now under a state legal order to fix its aging system. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection also fined the city $2.1 million — the largest penalty for a sewage spill in state history. Rather than pay the fine, state regulators agreed to let Fort Lauderdale spend that money on projects to help "restore or enhance" the environment.

But in a way, the damage has been done. Even a year later, residents remain angry about the series of spills that fell like dominos, gradually exposing the woeful condition of the city's crippled infrastructure.

Fort Lauderdale Sewage
Caitie Switalski

And Fort Lauderdale is not alone. Across the state, old pipes in coastal cities are experiencing increasing breaks — a problem only expected to worsen as sewage infrastructure continues to age and seas rise. Increasing pressure from higher groundwater and saltwater intrusion means leaky pipes can contaminate water while facing the potential for more corrosion.

In its latest assessment of infrastructure nationwide, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Florida a 'D' for its stormwater systems and a 'C' for wastewater. The next report is due March 3.

"We keep pushing that envelope," said engineer Sarah Matin, who authored the chapter on Florida.

'We Are At A Reckoning Point'

The spills have also soured people on the city's charm.

John Bordeaux started coming to Fort Lauderdale for vacations before moving to the city full time.

WLRN spoke to him last winter, before the pandemic hit, when he and a group of retired friends met at Timpano, an Italian steakhouse on Las Olas Boulevard. The restaurant welcomed the regulars before doors opened.

"I like being in the city. And the first few years were great," Bordeaux said. "But then over time, the more informed you get, the more scared you get, you know what I mean?"

Like Garofalo, he also moved, relocating to Sarasota last year after growing increasingly frustrated with the city's continued push for new development, while failing to address the sewage problems.

Bordeaux considers the irony.

"I mean, this city exists because of its waterways, it's supposed to be the 'Venice of America' right?" he said. "Well, not if the waterways are polluted."

Fort Lauderdale’s sewer problems may be among the most urgent, but older coastal cities all over Florida are also trying to keep up with the wear and tear.

City officials place most of the blame for the delayed repairs on the city's former administration. During his tenure, City Manager Lee Feldman used $120 million from utility funds to balance the general budget over six years. That practice was stopped in 2020, after Feldman was fired in late 2018.

Without a clear statewide plan to address aging infrastructure, and the increasing threat from sea rise, some experts say it's time to reinstate Florida's former growth management rules.

"We are at a reckoning point," said Richard Grosso, a Nova Southeastern University law professor and former legal director of 1000 Friends of Florida.

"We have billions and billions of dollars of infrastructure and land value in the way of sea level rise that we stand to lose," he said. "And we're still falling over each other fighting for new development that we're also then going to have to protect."

The problem has only gotten worse since the state dramatically weakened its growth management laws when Sen. Rick Scott was governor, Grosso said. The changes undid a web of rules meant to ensure growth was coordinated among cities and counties, especially in dense South Florida where boundaries are blurred.

Caitie Switalski
A King Tide going over a sea wall canal in the Rio Vista neighborhood.

In the 1970s and '80s, Florida’s population growth was growing by 1,000 new residents a day. That’s like adding a new Tampa or Orlando, or two Fort Lauderdales, every year.

Realizing they were headed down an unsustainable path, lawmakers — led by Gov. Bob Graham — made Florida the first state in the country to put strict growth management rules in place. The rules, put in place in 1985, forced governments to consider development both locally and regionally. They were aimed at keeping growth from snowballing and overwhelming roads, schools and sewer pipes.

"It was a mechanism that kept one local government from approving development that was going to strain its neighbors," Grosso said. "You know, we put in a big new mall and now I'm overloading traffic in all the cities that surround me. I get the tax base from the new mall. You all get the traffic and the demands on water and sewer and all of those things that come with it."

When Scott took office in 2010, on the heels of the recession, the state tossed out the rules hoping to rekindle new development, making the argument that the new development was needed to boost taxes.

But Grosso said new development rarely pays for itself or the additional demands it puts on roads, schools or aging pipes.

"That's just something you've heard for decades. And that's not ever accurate," he said. "If we charge 100 percent impact fees for new development, the cost of all new housing would be way too high. So we've always made these policy choices to subsidize new development by charging like 25, 30 or 40 percent of actual costs. "

Scott also did away with the state agency that monitored growth and instead created the new Department of Economic Opportunity.

Not Just A Fort Lauderdale Problem

Before the pandemic, Florida was back to welcoming nearly 1,000 new residents a day over for the last five years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"It's not just a Fort Lauderdale problem," Grosso said. "It's a problem throughout the state of Florida."

The New River, near Downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Caitie Switalski Muñoz
The New River, near Downtown Fort Lauderdale.

And not dealing with the problem will only compound it, Matin said.

"A lot of times people don't understand what the big deal is until something goes wrong," she said. "We live in the state of Florida and we have a beautiful place to live because of the work that people do in the shadows, under the ground."

In the last five years, conditions have gotten so bad in South Florida that environmental regulators put three local governments under legal mandates — telling them how to fix the problems. Dozens of others have been cited by the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

Miami-Dade County is under a federal consent order — its third after failing to comply with two previous orders for Clean Water Act violations in the early 1990s.

Florida's DEP has Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach under state orders to correct problems.

The 'Tedious' Work Is Underway

Rather than pay its hefty $2.1 million fine, FDEP presented Fort Lauderdale with the option to instead spent money on other environmental projects that do good, for example planting mangroves that filter water, or even building seawalls to better protect its waterways.

So far, the city has come up with a list of projects worth $4.5 million and asked for four years to complete the work.

In the meantime, even as most of the city was shut down during the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, construction has continued on the biggest problem: an older sewer main more than seven miles long that repeatedly broke last year. The line serves as a super highway for waste, carrying the bulk of the city's sewage.

City officials say the new $65 million dollar pipe is on track for completion, with part of it already being turned on.

Matin, the engineer, said cities are also rethinking how they maintain these old systems and embarking on the costly work of digitizing old networks that were sometimes just plotted on blueprints.

"A lot of times, you know, these systems are in place for 50, 60 years and it was just a plot on a set of plans," she said.

She said installing systems to monitor for potential breaks will not be cheap.

"Think about how large the city of Fort Lauderdale is and all of the water and wastewater piping that's connecting businesses and homes," she said. "All that has to be marked and plotted. So it can be pretty tedious."

"The conversation in the city has shifted from 'Which restaurant am I going to tonight?' to 'What is the living condition of the city?'"
Stan Eichelbaum, Fort Lauderdale resident

Spending billions on infrastructure to fix the problems statewide is probably unavoidable, said Thomas Ruppert, a lawyer and coastal planning specialist at the University of Florida's Sea Grant program. Like Grosso, he believes the answer is more fundamental: better growth management.

"I use the metaphor of a drug addict. I mean, we just can't wait for our next fix," Ruppert said. "We've been doing this for a century now and it's what everything is structured around in Florida: the idea of growth."

With climate change driving up costs in coastal cities, he said it may no longer be fair to evenly apply property rights.

"We need to start realizing that property rights might need to be conceived of in this time of climate change and civil rights impacts as not just individual rights, but also something that implicates larger societal values," he said.

"If we think about property rights as only about individuals, then it's all about me and my property. Does that mean it's my right to do whatever I want with my property? If I claim that right, does that mean others have to pay the costs of what that that implies for the rest of society?" Ruppert said. "Do you have to pay for exorbitant costs for infrastructure because of my decisions? Do you have to pay to rescue me if something goes wrong?'"

Before the spills, and long before the pandemic, Fort Lauderdale was still an idyllic place for retirees like the Timpano gang.

But once the spills started, there was a toll on everyday life, said longtime Fort Lauderdale resident Stan Eichelbaum.

"The conversation in the city has shifted from 'Which restaurant am I going to tonight?'" he said, "to, 'What is the living condition in the city?'"

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.
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