A Sewer Pipe Cracked In The Oleta River. It's Just The Latest Woe For Miami's Dirty Waterways

Aug 14, 2019

Over the weekend, a crack surfaced in a 55-year-old underground sewer pipe in Miami's Oleta River.

The small crack is less than two square inches in diameter and has so far spewed about a half million gallons of raw sewage. But the flow will continue as workers race to install a bypass pipe on the aging line - work they expect to complete by Thursday night.

While less severe than originally suspected when a kayacker discovered the leak Sunday, the spill is drawing attention to a worsening problem across Miami-Dade County: polluted waterways.

"It makes me want to cry," said Irela Bagué, chairwoman of the Miami-Dade County task force created this year to tackle worsening conditions in the bay. "We've seen this over and over again."

According to a report presented to the Biscayne Bay Task Force in July, more than a dozen major waterways across the county did not meet federal limits for E. Coli in 2018, including the Little River, Miami River, Snapper Creek, Biscayne Canal, Tamiami Canal, Arch Creek, Wagner Creek and the Coral Gables Waterway. That water flows into Biscayne Bay and supplies nutrients that feed chlorophyll, which also failed to meet standards across the bay.

Biscayne Bay also has come under increasing scrutiny after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration unveiled a study last week warning of a 'regime shift' in the bay, from clear water and seagrass meadows to murky green water filled with algae. The report looked at 20 years of water data and found nutrients from pollution steadily climbing, with areas near shore and enclosed parts of the bay already making the shift.

Three days later, a grand jury issued a damning report citing declining conditions and also pointing to three noteworthy sewage spills including a break last year on the opening day of Art Basel and Miami's weeklong art fairs.

The latest break occurred in a  48-inch pipe in the 2500 block of Northeast 163rd Street that carries sewage from Sunny Isles Beach, Golden Beach and parts of North Miami Beach to the county's north sewage treatment plant. By Monday night, said Water and Sewer Department spokeswoman Jennifer Messemer-Skold, workers were on the scene trying to install a bypass pipe.

To avoid sewage overflows and disrupting service in those cities, the department decided to keep the line open, she said. Based on the size of the crack, the department estimates that about 534,450 gallons of sewage had flowed from the pipe between the time it was reported and Tuesday night. People should steer clear of water from Maule Lake to the Intracoastal Waterway and south to Haulover Inlet. Affected beaches include Greynolds Park, Oleta River State Park and the beach 500 feet north and south of Haulover Inlet.

Water impacted by the spill extends from Maule Lake to the Intracoastal Waterway and south to Haulover Inlet.
Credit Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department

To try to reduce the spill, officials are asking customers in North Miami-Dade to reduce water use until the pipe can be fixed.

The pipe is also part of an ongoing $1.6 billion court-mandated overhaul of the county's entire aging system, ordered in 2013. It was scheduled to be redesigned next year in anticipation of being replaced by about 2022, Messemer-Skold said.

But the slow progress of the work and continued breaks across the aging system are concerning, said Bagué, who was told the pipe was last fixed in the 1990s.

"It makes sense to put it on a list so that periodically you might want to check that, right?" she said. "I don't think that happens."

The task force was instructed to come up with recommendations for improving water conditions within six months. But Bagué said task force members may ask for additional time because they are encountering so many problems.

"There's just so much information and so much stuff going on," she said. "We didn't expect all these things to start happening."