With so many contamination concerns and the risk of saltwater intrusion, some state water managers think Clemente has a better chance of securing additional allocation at the Northwest Wellfield. But that option, too, is problematic. The wetlands around the wellfield suffer from a profound infestation of melaleuca so thick it's difficult to walk through. (Melaleuca is an extremely fast-growing, exotic tree that has invaded South Florida wetlands, shutting out native plant species and wildlife habitat.) Clemente says he's "been told" the infestation set in well before the facility began operation in 1983. But several state environmentalists say the wellfield's activities have definitely encouraged the melaleuca proliferation, and they want to know whether an increased allocation would further degrade those wetlands and perhaps draw water away from the nearby Everglades.

State law prohibits anyone from damaging a wetland, either directly or indirectly, but that hasn't always been the case. "In the last ten to fifteen years, wetland-protection criteria have evolved tremendously," says Robert Robbins, a biologist for the Water Management District. "They've gone from virtually nothing to the protection we afford today." In fact, when the Northwest Wellfield was built, water regulators regarded a wetland as a good place to put a wellfield "because it was a consistent source of water," says the district's Jeff Rosenfeld, who reviews water-use permits. But when asked if the district would permit the Northwest Wellfield to be built in its present location under existing wetland-protection rules, Rosenfeld pauses for several seconds. His apparent discomfort with the question reflects the sensitivity of the subject. "No," he says finally.

Earlier this year Metro learned all about the state's new and improved wetland-protection rules in its battle with the Water Management District over a new wellfield in West Dade. The county had asked state water managers for permission to pump 140 mgd at its planned West Dade Wellfield. The wellfield had been in the works for years; in fact, pipes with the ability to carry 140 mgd had already been laid out to the site. But citing impacts to nearby Everglades National Park, the district's governing board denied the request and allocated only 15 mgd from the Biscayne Aquifer. The board allowed an additional 15 mgd, but from the Floridan Aquifer, a brackish source located below the freshwater Biscayne Aquifer. (Water utilities can blend Floridan water with Biscayne Aquifer water and treat it to make it potable.)

The impact on Metro was tremendous. Says Clemente: "If we had gotten what we requested, it would have eliminated any concern for us as far as water supply goes in the next five years." Clemente also had to throw out the department's two-year-old water-facilities master plan. He's now looking for a consultant to draw up another one.

Clemente is now pinning some -- but certainly not all -- of his hopes on the Hialeah-Preston permit request. While he declares unequivocally that the district should approve the full increase, state staffers are still waiting for some answers before they make a recommendation to the governing board. Under current rules, the governing board could approve the request, approve it but lower the numbers, or deny it altogether.

But district officials say there are other possible scenarios, which depend on whether the district passes a new rule, now under consideration, that would allow wellfield operators whose facilities damage wetlands to create or restore wetlands elsewhere. (This type of so-called environmental mitigation is allowed for certain kinds of impacts. A developer, for instance, may be permitted to fill in wetlands to build a housing complex.)

If the mitigation rule is passed, the governing board could approve the allocation, "grandfather in" existing wetland damage, and require mitigation of any damage the new pumping would cause. According to state water manager Jeff Rosenfeld, district officials have also "discussed internally" the possibility of both approving the permit and forcing retroactive mitigation on all existing wetland damage deemed the fault of the utility. Mitigation, adds Rosenfeld, "is a very expensive prospect."

And matters could get even bleaker. According to Rosenfeld, the district is treating the county's request as a renewal, not simply a modification, because Metro is seeking a six-year extension to its current permit, which expires in 1998. In this sense, Metro is virtually applying for a whole new permit. District officials say it's possible, if highly unlikely, that they will reduce the current allocation. Such a decision would depend on whether the state deemed the area around the wellfield a viable wetland. "'When does a wetland stop being a wetland?' is a very difficult question," says district biologist Robert Robbins, adding that he hasn't come to any conclusions yet.

"The economic reality of [a reduction] would be devastating to Dade County," says Julio Fanjul, a governmental representative for the Water Management District, "and the district probably wouldn't do that."

At lunchtime on September 14, the Rusty Pelican restaurant on the Rickenbacker Causeway was bursting with self-satisfaction. Almost everyone who had anything to do with the construction of the new crossbay sewage pipeline was there, celebrating their achievement in getting the tube built one year ahead of schedule and twelve million dollars under budget (not to mention before the old one exploded). The hero of the day was Anthony Clemente, who was presented with a certificate of commendation from the Board of County Commissioners, with a certificate of stock in "Greater Miami" by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, and with a proclamation from the City of Miami decreeing a "Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department Day." Attendees say the director was genuinely touched and appeared overwhelmed to be the center of attention.

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