Fort Lauderdale is soaked in waste after six sewage spills from decaying pipes dumped more than 126 million gallons of raw sewage directly into nearby rivers and canals over the last few weeks. That’s about the volume of 191 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
But something important has been lost in the stinking mess: Most of it isn’t actually poop or other flushed stuff. More than half of the volume flowing through the city’s crumbling sewage infrastructure is actually groundwater seeping in through the many, many cracks and holes in the aging system.
And it’s another problem for coastal communities that climate change is making worse: sea rise is soaking metal pipes in salty, corrosive water, and flooding from more frequent high tides pushes up through the ground, collecting that leaked sewage as it floods streets and parks.
Other Florida cities and counties will likely face similar problems and massive expenses in the future or already have. Miami-Dade, for example, has been struggling for decades to deal with waste that has periodically bubbled into streets or waterways, most recently in the Oleta River late last year. The county has been under federal orders since 2014 to clean up its act and fix a failing sewage treatment system as part of a $1.6 billion Consent Decree with state and federal agencies.
In Fort Lauderdale, December’s bursts have left residents and managers in a frenzy. Mayor Dean Trantalis vowed to come up with a “Marshall Plan” to fix the city’s plumbing. Angry residents are calling for a moratorium on new development. Commissioners agreed to spend more than $65 million in emergency funds to plug the leaks and get the pipes back underground. And the city is bracing for potentially huge fines from the state.
“It’s the single most devastating environmental catastrophe in the history of Broward County,” said Paul Chettle, a Fort Lauderdale activist.
A ‘SWISS CHEESE’ WASTEWATER SYSTEM
The city’s ancient network of pipes is crumbling. A 2017 consultant report to the city laid out over 800 pages of bad news, and all but called the city’s wastewater system Swiss cheese. Most of the pipes are at the end of their lifespan, the consultants found, sea rise is speeding up the timeline and leaks from surrounding and increasingly corrosive groundwater make up more than half the flow.
Fixing it all would take $1.4 billion the city doesn’t have. And a state order means Fort Lauderdale must fix most of its issues in the next decade. And that’s the bill for one coastal city.
There’s been a flurry of finger-pointing in Fort Lauderdale. Some residents blame new development. Mayor Trantalis, at a city commission meeting on Tuesday evening, blamed former administrations for kicking the can down the road.
He called the recent sewage spills “a result of neglect over almost a decade of ignoring a problem that should have been addressed long before today.”
One thing nearly everyone agrees: sea level rise is making the problem worse.
Fort Lauderdale, like the rest of South Florida, is planning on more than two feet of sea rise by 2060. That’s enough to flood 15 pump stations and 220 manholes, according to a city report.
As seas rise, the ground around these pipes is soggy more often than not. That wet, salty dirt eats at the pipes, and the jostling up-and-down motion of the tides loosens their joints.
Once that saltwater gets in, it brings dirt and sand, which saw away at the bottom of the pipes like sandpaper, creating weak spots. City Manager Chris Lagerbloom said when most of the broken pipes are pulled from the ground, workers find uneven wear — the bottom of the pipe is thinner than the top.
“It tells us that these pipes have been in an environment where the bottoms have always been wet…. And the tops have usually been dry, and the bottom has worn away over time,” he said.
Fort Lauderdale hired a team to test the soil around the city and find out just how salty and wet the dirt is around the pipes, and whether the wetter spots have more broken-down pipes.
A PAUSE ON DEVELOPMENT?
The newest volley of burst pipes has pushed upset residents to renew an old cry: halt new development until the city can get the sewage and water pipes functional again. They say the crop of new buildings in downtown and elsewhere is stressing the aging system and pushing Fort Lauderdale close to its water pumping limits.
Kevin Cochrane, a Rio Vista resident, started an online petition calling on the city to stop approving large developments until it has fixed the crumbling infrastructure, hiked impact fees and stopped dumping sewage into waterways. He is also organizing a protest among upset residents for this weekend. As of press time, his petition had nearly 1,800 signatures.
“There’s been a lot of rumblings about a moratorium, but no one’s had the political courage to demand it. There wasn’t the urgency,” he said. “Now you can see it and smell it.”
The last time someone called for a moratorium, after a disastrous sewage spill in 2016, they gathered a little over a thousand signatures.
“As we face the future sea level rise adding to the impacts of already aging infrastructure, we need a plan with concrete costs and identifiable sources of funding,” said Mary Fertig, who led the petition drive as head of Lauderdale Tomorrow. “We need to just step up and have the conversation.”
At the same meeting, representatives from the city’s Downtown Development Agency argued against any slowdown in the city’s development. They noted that the impact fees developers pay help fund some of the sewage projects.
“It is not about new development, it is about age of pipes and condition. So let’s address the problems with the appropriate solutions,” said DDA Head Jenni Morejon. “We do not need to stop.”
Lagerbloom said there wasn’t much political support for a moratorium, despite pressure from residents.
A HEFTY PRICE TAG
To foot the immediate bill, commissioners agreed Tuesday night to use cash from a few spots, including raiding a new $200 million parks bond. About $60 million will be used to replace the main trunk of the city’s system, 7.5 miles of sewer pipe connecting a golf course to a wastewater treatment center. The city’s newly hired contractors said it would take between 16 to 18 months.
When asked if the city might have to take out another $200 million bond before the current one runs out in five years, Lagerbloom told commissioners he didn’t know but said “extreme circumstances sometimes have to be met with extreme measures."
The other option, besides higher taxes, is getting another bond. But some worry the sewage crisis could make that more difficult. Credit agencies, the companies that calculate how much interest a city pays to borrow money, recently visited Fort Lauderdale to update the city’s credit rating. The city manager told residents they focused on cyber-security and resilience but the following week, Fort Lauderdale was fined for more than a dozen unauthorized sewage spills.
In Miami-Dade, even as the county works to comply with a consent decree to do repairs and upgrades, systems are constantly failing, letting untreated sewage spill from its rupturing pipes and crumbling pump stations. And the county keeps postponing work that should be considered priority, said Kelly Cox, from Miami Waterkeeper.
“This is critical infrastructure we are talking about, and we should be doing all the priority repairs instead of waiting for pipes to crack,” Cox said.
She cited as an example a busted pipe in the Oleta River in December that spilled at least one million gallons of raw sewage that reached Biscayne Bay. The pipe was supposed to have been fixed in 2013.
And the spill was only found when a kayaker spied gurgling water under a bridge that runs by the park in northern Biscayne Bay.
“We should be doing a much better job monitoring our sewage systems,” Cox said. “We can’t wait for kayakers to spot a spill and then report it to the county.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.