Federal Loan To Save Miami-Dade Millions On Sewage Treatment

Apr 5, 2019

Plans to end a decades-old practice of flushing treated sewage offshore in Miami-Dade County got an assist from the federal government Friday with the award of a nearly $100 million low-interest loan.

At a press conference at the county's South District treatment plant in Cutler Bay, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the deal should save the county over $15 million to help construct 14 deep injection wells. The wells are expected to cost about $203 million in total. Another loan from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will cover $60 million and the county will pay the rest.

"We're delivering on the president's agenda by providing financing to get projects off the ground," Wheeler said.

The money is part of a federal credit program administered by the EPA and created under the 2014 Water Infrastructure and Innovation Act that the Trump administration has used to boost infrastructure spending.

Miami-Dade County has long lagged behind other counties across the state that over the years began treating and using wastewater on golf courses, farm fields and other areas. While Miami-Dade injected some of its waste underground already, it also heavily relied on a 1970s-era practice of dumping treated waste offshore.

But in 2008, as evidence mounted that the sewage damaged reefs, lawmakers ordered the outfall pipes shut down. The county had planned to use much of the wastewater to cool new Florida Power & Light nuclear reactors at Turkey Point. But when the utility shelved the reactors, the county scrambled to find another use.

Adding more costly injection wells was part of a longterm plan, said water and sewer department deputy director Douglas Yoder. But paying for the project would have required higher-interest revenue bonds.

Of the 14 wells, three will be constructed at the heavily used south plant, which is nearing its 112 million gallon-a-day capacity, he said. Seven will be added to the county's central plant on Virginia Key and four will be dug at the north plant in North Miami Beach.

"Even though we have to pay it back, it's better than the alternatives," Yoder said.

Injection wells typically pump treated sewage about 3,000 feet into the boulder zone, beneath South Florida's water supplies in the Florida and Biscayne aquifers. While the freshwater Biscayne provides drinking water, the saltier Floridan must be treated and only supplies a small amount.

Using reclaimed water has helped other counties conserve freshwater supplies, but in Miami-Dade ripping up roads to lay pipes in older communities would make it too expensive, Yoder said. Demand also drops dramatically during the wet season, requiring counties to find another way to get rid of it. Using it to water lawns could also undo years of conservation efforts, he said.

"We have been encouraging people to irrigate less and plant landscaping that is more consistent with Florida's water cycle," he said. "Encouraging them to irrigate more so it uses up this effluent is a little inconsistent."

The county is now in the midst of securing contracts for the work, he said. It's not clear when work will begin, but it is expected to be complete by 2025.