Amid all the schemes for regional health and harmony, it's also tempting to forget one vital fact: Dade is running out of available water. Now. At the same time, Metro's ability to use existing hardware to get more water out of the aquifer is dubious, and potentially hazardous to the environment and public health.

At best, the pending Hialeah-Preston permit request represents a potential stopgap. In June the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department (WASD) filed the request to modify its existing state permit, which allows the county to pump and treat 164.93 mgd. WASD is seeking an increase to 201 mgd.

As a standard part of the permitting procedure, the Water Management District has responded to the request by seeking additional information. Among the things they want to know is what source Metro plans to tap, and what, if any, impact the pumping will have. Dade water officials have until the end of November to respond to the questions.

WASD director Anthony Clemente says he hasn't yet designated his intended water source: Wellfield pumping, he observes, is a "flexible" science; the county can "flipflop the pumpage" from wellfield to wellfield under a single permit. The director says he would prefer to draw all the water from the Miami Springs complex because the color of that water is lighter. A few years ago water officials decreased their pumping rate at the Northwest Wellfield and shifted to Miami Springs because the ground water in the northwest was turning brown, owing to leaching tannin from decaying vegetation in the Everglades. Julie Baker, an environmental planner for the Metro-Dade Department of Environmental Regulation, says the darker water doesn't present a health hazard but is a violation of a state aesthetic standard. "When people receive water that looks like weakened tea, they don't like it," explains Baker.

But the Miami Springs-area wells are already pumping too much. County ordinances establish a zone around wellfields, within which certain industries are prohibited. Airports, paint manufacturers, and dry cleaners are among the banned businesses; they deal in chemicals and waste that, if spilled, could seep into the aquifer and contaminate ground water. The so-called cone of influence around a wellfield is somewhat akin to the conical dip that forms on the surface of a milk shake when the shake is sucked through a straw; the stronger the sucking, the wider the cone.

The "wellfield protection zone" around the Miami Springs wells was determined under the assumption that the wells would pump 70 mgd. However, according to Vincent Arrebola, chief of the water and sewer division of the Metro-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), the Miami Springs wells are pumping between 100 and 125 mgd, expanding the cone well beyond the protection zone and into areas that are known to be contaminated -- such as Miami International Airport and certain industrial areas in Hialeah. DERM officials are performing tests to gauge the current cone of influence. While there are restrictions against industries locating within a wellfield protection zone, there are no restrictions against a wellfield pumping beyond the perimeter of its zone. (If this seems surprising, remember that Metro is, conveniently, both the wellfield operator and the author of the wellfield protection ordinance.)

Dade officials don't seem too concerned about the situation at Miami Springs; in fact, Julie Baker describes the excess pumping as not "really serious." The reason: The water being pumped by the Miami Springs wells is already contaminated, and has been since the early Eighties.

The wellfields were shut down in 1983 after the contamination was discovered. (Fortunately, the newly built Northwest Wellfield was brought on-line simultaneously.) While investigators were unable to pinpoint a specific source, they concluded that a range of industrial activities contributed to the problem. The wellfields reopened in 1992 after a $39 million decontamination system was installed at the Hialeah-Preston treatment plants, and officials responsible for monitoring water quality now say the treated water sent to consumers is not tainted.

"The concept was to use the Northwest wells totally until the ground water around the [Miami Springs wells] was cleaned up," says Clemente. "But when the color increased, that caused us to shift back to [Miami Springs]." According to DERM's Arrebola, those wells have been pumping beyond their protection zone since September 1992.

"Quite frankly, whether you overpump or underpump, it's going to be contaminated," Baker points out matter-of-factly. But, she adds, Metro's environmental authorities would like water officials to lower the pumping rate because pumping and treating contaminated water is "not something that we want to keep doing."

Adds Arrebola: "At first we thought this may be an interim situation after Hurricane Andrew, but we have asked [the Water and Sewer Department] if they plan to do this permanently. Then we can change the wellfield protection zone and safeguard the water supply."

Two other potential obstacles impede Clemente's desire to increase the allocation at the Miami Springs well complex. For one, Metro and state officials worry that more pumping might draw salt water from the eastern Biscayne Aquifer into the wells. The second consideration: Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez tells New Times he is going to seek a decrease in the wellfield protection zone around the Miami Springs wellfields to enable industrial growth in Hialeah.

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