FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – In Fort Lauderdale’s Rio Vista neighborhood, the disruption has continued for more than two months after a string of catastrophic sewer main breaks.
“It shouldn’t have happened,” neighbor Carol Schmidlin said. “You know, we’re not a backwater town. We’re Fort Lauderdale, Florida.”
Schmidlin’s property has undergone clean-up and crews have brought in brand new sod. She still notices the smell after the second break along the sewer main on Dec. 20.
“That was an absolute shock to see that much raw sewage,” she said.
That break spilled 78 million gallons of sewage, much of it poured right by her home into the Tarpon River. In all, the series of breaks impacting the city totaled the largest spill in Broward County history -- 129.6 million gallons of raw sewage. The city’s decision to pump the waste into the river in the immediate aftermath of the first break on Dec. 10 has been a point of concern for many in the community, including Schmidlin.
“Two or three days later, I walked out and there’s actual raw sewage floating on the top of the Tarpon River,” she said.
It’s also been on the radar of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. Local 10 News reviewed emails between city employees and the DEP. In January, an email from the assistant director of the DEP’s Southeast District asked whether the city was able to bring in more trucks to help reduce the volume of sewage being discharged. The city explained that due to the confined area where the break happened, trucks were already working at all available access points.
“This was ultimately a decision by the city manager,” explained District 4 City Commissioner Ben Sorenson. “Which I think was the right decision and it was the right decision choosing between two very bad options.”
Four of the breaks happened along the same 54-inch sewer main. The volume of the spill left city leaders no choice but to divert it into the waterways, according to Sorenson, who said it was either that or into residents' homes.
“It’s just horrible that when we pride ourselves on being the Venice of America and we had to choose to pollute our waterways,” he said.
Rio Vista resident Ivan Diaz said he still has concerns about the impact to the Tarpon, which runs right behind his home.
“If you look, it is clearly dirty,” he said. “And I see families having fun, riding up and down the river and I’m like thinking to myself, ‘Don’t let that kid fall in.’”
Emails obtained by Local 10 revealed just how devastating the spills were in the days that followed. One update showed the city removed nearly 300 dead fish from the water in a three-day period in mid-December. The following day more than 60 fish, along with an iguana and a seagull, were found dead. The pattern continued into January in the Rio Vista area.
On Jan. 7, the city pushed to lift the no recreation advisory for the Himmarshee Canal after two days of passing water sampling results.
Sorenson told Local 10 he understood the community’s concerns.
“One hundred percent," he said. "And we can do a better job of regularly testing the water.”
He explained the city conducted testing during the main breaks, but typically Broward County conducts testing on local waterways. He said the city is working together with the county in order to increase the frequency of that testing in the future, as well as increase the public reporting of results.
Neighbors like Diaz said they understood the city’s decision given the risk to homes. The sewage made it up to the front of his house, but did not go inside.
“Thank goodness,” he added. “However, these houses are old. I don’t know what’s going on underneath. It could be a party down there.”
Sorenson said the city was aware of the delicate state of this particular pipe and had begun plans to install a new parallel line and repair the existing one just two weeks prior to the devastating Dec. 10 break.
Neighbors Schmidlin and Diaz both spoke about lingering worries that this will surely happen again.
“The line goes all the way to Coral Ridge, so this is like whack-a-mole,” explained Diaz. “There will be another break. It’s just common sense will tell you it’s going to happen again.”
Sorenson said the city is also reviewing the potential impact of development on their water, sewer and storm water infrastructure. He said the city has already tripled the impact fees paid by developers in order to get them to invest into the system they will be using.
The city is using $200 million in bond money to invest in current infrastructure needs. A $1.4 billion investment is needed to make the necessary long-term repairs.
In a statement directed to members of the community, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said: “You have been through a lot in recent months and we appreciate the magnitude of the issues you are currently facing. I can assure you that Governor DeSantis and DEP will continue to keep your communities’ recovery a top priority while ensuring measures are put in place to prevent future spills and local officials are held accountable for maintaining, monitoring and repairing critical infrastructure.”