Running on Empty

A century of messing with Mother Nature has robbed the Everglades of too much water. Now we don't even have enough for ourselves.

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.

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.)

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