State agency gives Fort Lauderdale choice over how to pay for sewage breaks

Either pay a penalty or invest in environmental restoration projects, state agency orders

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is giving the city of Fort Lauderdale a choice in how it will pay for a series of sewage breaks that plagued the Rio Vista neighborhood for months. Either pay a hefty penalty or invest in environmental restoration projects.

DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said his agency is amending the consent order to the city now that officials have finally stopped re-routing utility revenues and spending on projects other than the aging water and sewer system.

Many people in Fort Lauderdale believe this is a victory because the state specifically spells out in its proposal that the city not return to its previous practice of return on investment — that is essentially taking funds from sewer rates and spending them on anything but the aging sewer system.

“I think it is a long overdue wake up call we hope for the State of Florida, not just this individual city,” Valenstein said.

“Getting revenue from the wastewater treatment program and then that revenue would end up supporting other areas of local government? We were left scratching our heads with ‘You might not have that problem if you hadn’t been robbing your own utilities money to begin with. '” Valenstein said.

The new order now gives the city the option to pay a historic penalty of more than $2 million or invest in an in-kind project. There is a catch: the money can’t go toward mandated repairs, instead it has to be an environmental restoration project worth one and a half times the original penalty amount.

"Families were unable to get in the water where they used to fish, swim, recreate. They were scared to walk down the street in their neighborhood," Valenstein said.

Chaz Adams, a spokesperson for the City of Fort Lauderdale, told Local 10 that they have been in contact with the regulatory agency about the order, but have not decided how to proceed. “We are in receipt of the document, however, before making any assessment, we will need time to thoroughly review the information,” Adams said.

As part of that consent order, the city is required to perform an environmental analysis of George English Lake and the Tarpon River to assess how much of an impact the sewage spills had on those bodies of water.

Chris Lagerbloom, City Manager, City of Fort Lauderdale, released a statement Friday.

"The City of Fort Lauderdale is committed to improving, upgrading, and strengthening its infrastructure to preserve our environment and protect public health.

In 2018, Mayor Trantalis and the City Commission announced a four-year plan to eliminate transfers from the utility fund to the general fund. We completed the four-year process in just two years.

As we were negotiating an amended Consent Order, we informed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection of our actions to eliminate fund transfers and they were supportive. Our quick elimination of this practice was a clear indication of our commitment to addressing infrastructure challenges.

The City currently has numerous projects and initiatives underway, led by a five-year utilities action plan that is investing more than $600 million in our water, sewer, and stormwater systems. Two environmental services companies are evaluating the Tarpon River and George English Lake as part of a remediation plan to address affected portions of these waterways. Installation of a new 7.5 mile wastewater transmission line is 30 percent complete, upgrades to the G.T. Lohmeyer Wastewater Treatment Plant are in progress, and we are about to launch a $200 million stormwater improvement project.

We thank the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for their guidance in this matter. We look forward to continuing to work in partnership with them as we implement projects and initiatives to advance our commitment to protect, preserve, and enhance the environment now and for future generations."