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The Sunshine Economy

The Sunshine Economy: Miami-Dade County's Water And Sewer Boss

Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department
The sewer treatment plant on Virginia Key is one of three in Miami-Dade County. The water and sewer system spending plan totals more than $7 billion, the highest by far of any county government department.

“I have become the water and sewer system,” said Kevin Lynskey. “Apparently, I am the water and sewer system.”

This isn’t a statement of ego exactly. Rather, it is how Lynskey feels about the job he’s held for almost two years — director of the Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer System.

“At a certain point, as you take a new job, you become the human representative of everything that happened for 50 years,” he said.

Lynskey’s job places him at the center of growing scrutiny of thousands of miles of underground water and sewer pipes, aging water treatment plants and billions of dollars of mandatory fixes. Miami-Dade water and sewer rates went up this month as the department works to meet deadlines for expensive repairs.

He said he feels trapped in a box. Maybe between a rock and a hard place is a better description. There’s a 2008 state law requiring Miami-Dade to address how it sends treated wastewater into the ocean. The running tab on that is over $5 billion. And there’s the 2014 court order requiring the county to fix its sewer and water treatment system. Fixes for that are running close to $2 billion.

“Our three primary wastewater treatment plants were in very sad shape. In fact, they're in bad shape today. And until about 2023 or so, they're going to remain in somewhat questionable condition,” he said.

The capital spending plan for water and sewer projects was more than that for police, fire, parks and transportation combined for FY 2019. In the latest county budget that took effect October 1, that capital spending wish-list has been pared back to about $8 billion. A new water treatment plant was dropped from the list because demand for water hasn’t increased as expected. But water and sewer rates have been raised by about six percent. And the department will borrow billions of new dollars over the next decade.

More people, same thirst

“The biggest problem you have is trying to build and finance $13 billion worth of stuff in 10 years. I mean, that's just an amazing thing. We're no longer an operating department. We're a massive capital department,” said Lynskey.

Despite being forced to spend billions to address problems in Miami-Dade County, Lynskey said his “big-big picture” of the water system is to invest outside of the county. He’d like to help save water north of Miami-Dade County before it reaches the ocean. 

One idea is the C-51 reservoir project in Palm Beach County. “We need to focus our money on trapping the freshwater that's available and then cleaning up polluted water, not building new machines that do what nature will do for us,” he said. “If you look at all the investments we're going to make as individual communities in response to a water management strategy that comes from the [South Florida Water Management] district, we're being forced to do very expensive things. If we all thought together collectively there's a less expensive solution that is, I think, overall, far better and it is sustainable.”

The target for him is cleaning up Biscayne Bay. He called what’s damaging water quality in the bay as “today’s enemy.” Lynskey said, if it were up to him, he would be spending money on cleaning up the canal system.

Instead, the water and sewer department will borrow more than $400 million per year over the next decade to fulfill the federal court consent decree and 2008 state law. While he agrees with the court order, Lynskey said he disagrees with the law setting 2025 as the deadline to stop sending treated wastewater into the ocean, but he’s following the law.

“I'm signing contracts. I'm awarding all kinds of stuff,” he said. “There's so little time to get out of those investments. If it's really not done in the next 18 months, we're gonna be so heavily invested, we might as well keep going.”

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN.  He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.