Miami-Dade County and FPL Sparring Again Over Water, Cooling Canals and Turkey Point

Jan 27, 2020

A scarcity of freshwater near Turkey Point has led to another legal clash between Miami-Dade County environmental regulators and Florida Power & Light.

Miami-Dade County has asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to reverse a permit it issued in late 2018, allowing the utility to move more freshwater into sprawling wetlands FPL owns just south of the plant. Diverting the water could jeopardize ongoing efforts to clean-up an underground saltwater plume emanating from the plant’s cooling canals to the west, the county’s environmental chief said.

“By holding water on wetlands, you keep the hydraulic pressure on wetlands so the plume doesn’t migrate.” said Division of Environmental Regulation Management chief Lee Hefty.

The wetlands make up a for-profit mitigation bank operated by FPL and created in 1995. FPL sells credits from the land for thousands of dollars to developers, governments and other property owners so they can build on protected wetlands elsewhere. FPL declined to answer questions about the dispute, or the bank itself, because the matter is in litigation, said spokesman Peter Robbins.

FPL's wetland mitigation bank is located south of Turkey Point cooling canals.
Credit Florida Department of Environmental Protection

In 2017, the city of Sunrise paid FPL more than $85,000 for seven-tenths of a credit. As of November, Everglades National Park sold  credits in its 6,300-acre mitigation bank to the west for $69,000 each. 

The paucity of freshwater in the region stems from decades of flood control that cut off water flowing from the north across the transverse glades that separated marshes from the coast. Most of the freshwater now moves through canals, including the L-31, which FPL has tapped to both freshen its cooling canals connected to the power plant and replenish the wetlands.

After the county cited the cooling canals for polluting Biscayne Bay - when water monitoring turned up elevated levels of ammonia and tritium, a radioactive isotope used to track water from nuclear plants - FPL entered a clean-up deal. That deal required the utility to begin shrinking an underground saltwater plume that began spreading after temperatures in the canals jumped and salinity spiked following an increase in power production. That clean-up is expected to cost ratepayers at least $176 million.

Part of that clean-up requires keeping more water in wetlands to the west, Hefty said.

"We wrote the consent agreement very specifically to hold water higher but still comply with [the previous mitigation bank] permit," he said.

While restoring wetlands is good, Hefty said FPL’s coastal mitigation bank is increasingly vulnerable to sea rise and flooding from king tides, making it less sustainable.

“You’re essentially trying to change a vegetative community on a tidal side of a levee in the face of king tides and seas rise,” he said. “It doesn’t really make a lot of sense.”

Moving water into the privately-owned wetlands is also taking it from public lands, said Kelly Cox, an attorney for Miami Waterkeeper. Last month, the non-profit environmental group wrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to complain that the change in water levels could harm endangered species. The agency reviewed the matter as part of a request to extend the licenses on the two 1970s-era nuclear reactors. Nuclear regulators approved the extensions through the 2050s in December, making them the nation's longest running.

“That region is freshwater starved. And FPL has a lot of water demands. They have water demands for fresh water in their cooling canal system and the wetlands have freshwater demands as well,” she said. “There's this inherent push and pull on the water levels because there is a limited capacity for how much water is actually getting to that region.”

State environmental regulators said they changed the water levels when the agency revised a mitigation bank permit in response to a request for nearly 100 credits. As part of the request, they told FPL to lower gates to allow more freshwater onto the more than 9,000-acre site. Officials did not respond when asked whether it conflicted with efforts to clean-up the saltwater plume.

In its first annual monitoring report on the clean-up submitted in November, FPL said the plume is expected to continue expanding west for at least three years, but pumping efforts should retract the plume completely by year 10 as required by the agreement with the county. FPL has been pumping out salty water and flushing it down deep injection wells. The volume of the plume has been reduced by 22 percent, the report said.