South Florida continues to combat increase in water main breaks

Water infrastructure continues to be concern for many South Florida residents

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Water infrastructure concerns are top of mind in South Florida after what has felt like a new water or sewage line break every week.

South Florida communities continue to be affected by breaks that lead to interruptions in service, boil water advisories or hazardous sewage spills.

In Fort Lauderdale, residents are still frustrated after a Florida Power & Light subcontractor mistakenly hit a water main in July.

The break knocked out water service to thousands and was followed by days of boil water advisories.

"It shut the city down completely," neighbor Charles King said.

But should officials have seen some of these problems coming?

"It's been pushing the can down the road," neighbor and activist Stan Eichelbaum said.

The cost of aging infrastructure is a problem nationwide, but particularly in South Florida, where salt water and rising sea levels have brought unique challenges. Local 10 News requested numbers on how many water and sewer breaks happened in 2019 in Fort Lauderdale.

According to the city, it had 38 water main breaks through mid-October and 8 sewage spills. But numbers from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection revealed more than triple that amount: 25 sewage spills through October.

The DEP has fined the city tens of thousands of dollars for unauthorized sewage spills with more on the way for this year. July’s water main break was even more complicated as city officials rushed to try to find valves to re-route water flow around the break. Dated maps had inaccurate information, and worse, when they did find the valves, they didn’t work because no one had maintained them in years.

It’s one example of more than an estimated billion dollars in infrastructure improvements facing the city in coming years.

"Six years, they took $120 million out of our water and sewer system that should have gone to maintenance," King said. "They didn't borrow. They called it a return on their investment. You know, they took it."

Neighbors like King said the city's practice of taking from the city-owned water and sewer utility to spend on other city projects should have stopped a long time ago.

"What you're referring to is called return on investment, and it is a standard practice," Assistant Director of Public Works Sustainability Dr. Nancy Gassman explained.

Dr. Nancy Gassman, with the city of Fort Lauderdale, says the amount of money diverted from sewer and water projects has been reduced through the years.

She said the city has reduced the amount it takes each year for other city projects.

"We've reduced it to $10 million. It started out at $20 million. They took $5 million the first year, $5 million the next year," Gassman said. "So the expectation is that the commission will continue that trend over the next two years."

The city is moving forward on a $610 million, five-year capital improvement plan to upgrade water, wastewater and storm water systems. Still, it's unclear whether to replace or repair the aging Fiveash Water Treatment Plant, and how to pay for the estimated cost of well over $100 million.

When asked about the diversion of water and sewer funds, Gassman offered a measured approach.

"We have to stage and phase the work that we're doing in infrastructure so that we don't end up completely disrupting everything in the community," Gassman said. 

"The nation, as a whole, aging infrastructure is a national problem," Jennifer Messemer-Skold, spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade Water & Sewer Department, said. 

The county is now in year seven of its own multi-year, multi-billion dollar capital improvement program.

It stemmed in part from federally mandated upgrades to reduce sewage overflows, an area in which data showed the county has made progress.

County numbers show 94 wastewater breaks in 2018, down from the five-year average. Of those, 26 breaks were reportedly caused by contractors, contributing to the majority of the volume of the spills.

Along with the planned upgrades, Miami-Dade staff said they are being proactive and working to avoid breaks before they happen.

"We have an extensive leak detection program," Messemer-Skold said. "We put acoustical equipment through the pipes that evaluates the pipes."

Jennifer Messemer-Skold, spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade Water & Sewer Department, says aging infrastructure is a national problem.

Once detected, crews are sent out to pinpoint a leak and make the necessary repairs before a break affects service.

In August, a sewage line break spilled wastewater into Oleta River State Park.

Messemer-Skold said that pipe was already on the county's radar when it suddenly gave out. There were additional breaks in September on sewage lines along the William Lehman Causeway.

It's not clear if those pipes were identified prior to the breaks.

In Fort Lauderdale, neighbor and activist Stan Eichelbaum said it's critical for city leaders to stop pushing development until they get infrastructure on track.

"We're playing Russian roulette with the lives of a couple hundred thousand people and tourists," he said.

Local 10 News has learned the current Public Works Director Paul Berg has announced plans to retire at the end of the year, prompting a nationwide search to find the person who will take over and guide the city through this process.

"Right now there's apprehension in the community," Eichelbaum said. "The only thing that quells that is honesty."

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