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.

New treatment plant allocations. Clemente's staff is preparing a request for additional allocation at the Alexander Orr, Jr., treatment plant. In the event the Hialeah-Preston permit is denied, he says, Alexander Orr might be able to take up some of the slack for North Dade, although the transmission lines aren't large enough to handle all the necessary flow.

Sewage reuse. WASD is planning to build a facility, at a cost of between eight and ten million dollars, that would pump treated sewage to several golf courses in Northeast Dade. Another plan in the works is to build a $500 million wastewater treatment plant in West Dade that would send its treated effluent to recharge the Biscayne Aquifer and buttress the water supply for the Everglades and nearby urban wellfields. Wastewater reuse costs upward of about $2.50 per 1000 gallons, Metro officials say, compared with current Dade cost of about $1.40 per 1000 gallons. While technology exists to treat sewage to drinking-level standards, Clemente says it's prohibitively expensive and an unnecessary alternative right now (and a difficult sell to consumers).

Aquifer storage and recovery (ASR). This technique takes water from the Biscayne Aquifer during the rainy season and stores it in the Floridan Aquifer for later use. While installing an ASR well costs about twice as much as putting in a regular well, the cost of producing ASR water for the consumer once the system is up and running is about the same as the cost of pumping via conventional methods, says Jorge Rodriguez, deputy director for water facilities of the Water and Sewer Department.

Reverse osmosis. Salt water is abundant in South Florida, but desalinization techniques are prohibitively expensive (about three to five dollars per one thousand gallons, according to Clemente.) Even though WASD engineers are exploring the possibility, Clemente says he "doesn't see a need for it."

New wellfields. Clemente says his planners are considering new wellfield construction in Southwest Dade and, depending on the outcome of the Hialeah-Preston permit application, possibly a wellfield in North Dade. A potential site would be in the northwest corner of Dade, near the proposed location of the Blockbuster entertainment complex. (Joe Podgor of Friends of the Everglades says the chance that the site might save the county from a water crisis is reason enough for public officials to block the Blockbuster project, which he argues would be incompatible with a wellfield.)

Conservation. Metro has implemented nearly all of a six-point conservation plan that would reduce the amount of waste water consumers generate. Each year Dade disposes of about 110 billion gallons of waste water by injecting it deep into Earth or sending it out through a long pipe to the Gulf Stream. The conservation plan imposes a new rate structure on consumers: The more you use, the more you pay. It also mandates the use of low-volume bathroom fixtures in new construction. The final component, a xeriscape ordinance requiring the use of water-efficient plants in landscaping, has been tied up in various Metro departments for months.

Dade consumers may feel the effects of these programs in their wallets. The current water-and-sewer bill is $41.65 per month for an average Dade household, low by national standards. (By comparison, Orlando is $42.65, Philadelphia is $50.06, Broward County is $51.43, and Boston is $72.19.) Clemente says customers here can expect to see annual increases of less than ten percent over the next few years. But the increases may jump if Metro is forced to employ "exotic" methods of water supply, such as reverse osmosis or wastewater reuse.

As local strategies for water relief dovetail with the massive regional plans now taking shape, Clemente, more than any other individual, is likely to feel the pressure to produce water that simply isn't available. He knows Metro's previous water bosses never had it so bad, but he's rational about the alternatives. "There's an economic cost to losing the Everglades and there's an economic cost to not losing it," he observes. "There's an awareness that the natural resource out there is too valuable to eliminate." Making that decision is easy enough, but Clemente knows it's a lot harder to determine what comes next. The need to try, however, is more pressing than ever before.

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