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.

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.

A year and a half ago, County Manager Joaquin Avi*o made Clemente, then an assistant county manager, director of the Water and Sewer Department. At the time, the county's sewer system was springing leaks on a daily basis. Avi*o handed Clemente a clear mandate: Fix it. Fast. No one ever argued with Clemente's selection as pointman. His supporters and detractors alike use terms such as "can-do guy" and "take charge" and even "Machiavellian" to describe the man and his administrative style. In terms of rectifying the sewer ills of the county, Clemente appears to be acquitting himself well.

But the greatest test of his guile and political skills -- indeed, of his career -- may be upon him now. And even if he is selected to replace the outgoing Avino as the next county manager (he is widely considered a frontrunner for the post now that Avino has announced his impending departure), the problem of ensuring a safe, inexpensive future water supply for Dade will follow him to County Hall. He knows it's not a matter for delegation to someone else.

Clemente is frank about the pressure he is under. "I worry all the time," he admits, cradling a glass of orange juice and sitting at a long conference table in WASD's plush new administrative offices in Coral Gables. "You don't have the job of water and sewer director without worrying." An intense man with steely dark eyes, Clemente has a propensity to speak faster than most human ears can comprehend. "If it's too dry I worry; if it rains too much I worry," he says. But he wants to clarify that Dade isn't in emergency mode yet. "We are in what I would call a tight situation," he says. "Not in what I'd call a crisis situation. But we're on a very tight leash."

As this collar constricts, Clemente is pursuing an array of different projects that, to varying degrees, may guarantee a future water supply for Dade, at least in the short to medium term:

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