Running on Empty
Everything is dirty, or at least feels dirty. Metro-Dade buses, once bright white with blue and lime-green stripes, are now various shades of gray. With the reduced water pressure, it's hard to get clean under the dribble that falls from shower nozzles. Better to take a sponge bath (and there's nothing quaint about it).
Landscape irrigation is prohibited for all but an hour or two a week, rendering Dade a patchwork of amber lawns. Thousands of dollars in fines are levied on once law-abiding citizens caught watering their yards during restricted hours. A few repeat offenders are thrown into the slammer. Put off by the ugliness of Dade's golf courses, the PGA moves the Doral Ryder Open out of Miami. Coral Gables wilts.
These are merely the daily inconveniences, mild annoyances compared to the more serious consequences of Dade's newest water shortage. In Coconut Grove, careless kids playing with matches set alight a wooden bungalow. Half the block burns down before the water department manages to boost the pressure enough to allow firefighters to battle the blaze.
Tomato growers and other farmers are forced to reduce their acreage and lose millions of dollars in crops. New construction shudders to a halt. Multinationals looking to relocate their headquarters to the Magic City turn their attention elsewhere. Prozac becomes the dinner mint of choice at chamber-of-commerce functions all over town.
Images like these are keeping some public officials awake at night, but they are more than the nightmares of feverish imaginations. They could be our reality in the very near future. Unlike previous water shortages, such as the dearth that lasted from 1989 to 1991, this one isn't about a temporary drought. Indeed, the voluminous rainfalls of the past few months have saturated the earth; there's plenty of water all around. The "looming crisis," as Metro's top water official Anthony Clemente puts it, is far more profound and dire: It involves whether we can continue to get that water without destroying the environment and ourselves.
Simply put, Dade consumers are using just about as much water as state water managers will allow. Dade takes most of its water from the Biscayne Aquifer, a wedge-shape subterranean sponge of porous limestone that holds huge volumes of slow-moving ground water. A constellation of wellfields around the county sucks the water from the aquifer -- which begins just below our feet -- and powerful pumps force the water through massive pipes to treatment plants.
Most residents and businesses north of Flagler Street get their water from either the Northwest Wellfield, located off of NW 58th Street, two miles beyond Florida's Turnpike, or from a cluster of wells in the Miami Springs-Hialeah area just north of Miami International Airport. Water from these sites is treated at a nearby complex called the Hialeah-Preston Water Treatment Plants. Consumers south of Flagler depend largely on water drawn at several wellfields in South Dade and processed at the Alexander Orr, Jr., Water Treatment Plant. (Water law differs from state to state: In Florida water rights are publicly held and managed by the state.)
But demand is outracing supply. Metro-Dade is permitted by state water managers to treat an average of 164.93 million gallons per day (mgd) at its Hialeah-Preston plants. But county officials admit they're pulling an average of 167.9 mgd from the wellfields for treatment at the plants. (The numbers are slightly better down south. State permits allow Metro to send an average of 181.45 mgd to its Alexander Orr plant. Currently the plant is handling about 167 mgd.)
No extra water means no ability to handle new demand. No ability to handle new demand means no new construction. In addition no available surplus would mean disaster should a breakdown occur or a wellfield become contaminated. Metro's water officials are now scrambling to find additional supplies of water. Among their most immediate measures, they recently requested permission from the state to pump more water for treatment at the Hialeah-Preston plants.
Despite the urgency of the situation, that permission is not guaranteed. Environmental activists and environmental regulators are concerned that additional pumping at either the Northwest Wellfield or the Miami Springs wells could have disastrous consequences for the environment and jeopardize public health. "I gotta hear a lot more from my own staff whether that water's available," says Nathaniel Reed, one of the state's foremost environmentalists and a member of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board, which will eventually decide whether to approve or deny the request. "It's certainly premature for anyone to say at this time, and Dade County better start to think about conservation and [alternative water supplies] no matter what the cost."
As Metro officials are preparing other permit requests, they are also accelerating ongoing programs involving alternative (and expensive) methods of water recovery, storage, treatment, and reuse. Meanwhile the future water supply in South Florida hangs in the balance. "We're in a situation where, if certain things don't happen every day, we will definitely be in a water crisis," warns Clemente, the director of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department. "Every major decision that we're facing in the next five years will either cause a water crisis to happen or perhaps delay it. By 'water crisis' I mean we're not able to supply any additional growth in Dade County."
This scramble is happening amid a growing regional awareness of the interconnectedness between urban and rural settlement and the natural environment. More than a dozen local, state, and federal groups are currently studying the problems of ecosystem restoration and management, trying to find a mutually supportive balance between a healthy environment and a strong South Florida economy. They're trying to rectify years of myopic resource management. "In a place that has 60 inches of rain a year," exclaims Jim Webb, regional director of the Wilderness Society, "there ought to be other constraints on development than water." The looming water-supply crisis has everything to do with the way we have historically rigged and bastardized the delicate natural ecosystem of South Florida to suit ourselves. The government officials who have their hands on the valve are now realizing that in the struggle of competing water needs, we can no longer take what we want when we want it. They're also learning the cost of a century of ignorance and arrogance.
On this rainy afternoon, Tom Segars, water-production superintendent for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, is squeezed behind the wheel of a county truck heading toward the Northwest Wellfield. A round man with a full beard, Segars oversees operations at Dade's wellfields and treatment facilities. ("He's the guy that you got to remember when you open your faucet every day and have water pressure," explains his boss, Water and Sewer Department deputy director Jorge Rodriguez.)
Segars also embodies some of the current tension about competing water needs in South Florida. His job is to get enough clean water to Dade's users 24 hours a day. But as a native Miamian and an avid fisherman, he understands the irreplaceable value and fragility of our natural ecosystem.
Historically, Segars says, water was never a problem to get in South Florida: Dig down a couple of feet and there it was. "That's a significant picture," he says, pointing out the truck's window. A pasture to the south of NW 58th Street has flooded, driving several cows to refuge on a slender rise. They cluster together under a tree, and remain still. If they move, they'll be swimming. "That's the way this area used to be: flooded. The water supply down here was actually regarded as a problem."
In fact, most of southeast Florida used to be submerged, and its modern history has in many ways been defined by its human inhabitants' relationship to water. The Everglades once swept from the banks of Lake Okeechobee and flowed unimpeded in a shallow, southwesterly 50-mile-wide sheet to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, feeding aquifers beneath the coastal ridge to the east.
The disruption and manipulation of this natural system began in earnest after the Civil War, with the appearance of northern land speculators who envisioned new empires springing out of the sawgrass. By the early 1900s, developers had set about draining the territory south of Lake Okeechobee with a network of locks, dams, and canals to create land for settlements and farms. In the late 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under Congressional orders, accelerated the transformation of the Everglades with a massive plumbing project that diked and diverted water to provide flood control, to dry out land for new settlements, to create and irrigate farmland, and to supply fresh water to South Florida's burgeoning population. Today about 1500 miles of canals and levees crisscross the region from the Kissimmee River in Central Florida to the Florida Bay. The network, by some estimates, successfully eliminated more than 50 percent of Everglades wetlands.
Now the water-supply system is jointly controlled by the Army Corps and the state, via a system of pumps and locks and marshy water-storage areas. (Yes, Mother Nature has been replaced by a team of nerdy engineers and scientists sporting pocket protectors.) But by turning valves here and closing gates there, man has been unsuccessful in mimicking the historic flows of the Everglades. A dramatic reduction of fresh water flowing to the natural ecosystem has resulted in the widely documented demise of the "River of Grass," of Florida Bay, and of the coral reefs off the Florida Keys.
At the same time, the needs of the growing human population of Southeast Florida are on the verge of surpassing the outdated water-delivery system's ability to send water to urban and agricultural areas. The situation stands to get even worse: According to Charles Blowers, chief of the research division of the Metro-Dade County Planning Department, Dade's current population of about 2,030,000 is expected to increase by nearly 900,000 people in the next 20 years.
"The days of buying property, drilling a well, pulling it out, treating it, and sending it to the public are over," declares Segars. "That's a tough thing to say. But unfortunately we're running out of options for water supply. It's going to be a lot more difficult to get, and it's going to result in higher water bills."
Out past Krome Avenue, Segars drives his truck up on top of a high earthen levee that abruptly separates urban development from the natural system. He slides a cigarette from a fresh pack of Winston Lights and gets out. "This is the Everglades," he says grandly, waving his arm in a wide arc. To the west of the levee, a vast expanse of marshy sawgrass rolls out toward the horizon. "This is what Florida used to be like. It's the River of Grass. It's all water. And it's glorious!" A kingfisher swoops low and out of sight. "That's neat as shit," Segars remarks.
"I realize I have a job to provide drinking water to the people, and I'm going to do what I have to do to accomplish that. But I was born and raised down here and I don't want to have a hand in making this go away." Segars bemoans the widespread ignorance about the importance of the Everglades to the economy, both as a source of water and a recreational attraction. "We all own this out here, but we don't all visit it," he observes. "It's like 'out of sight, out of mind.' But if we destroy it, we're sure going to be living differently."
Had someone dropped a bomb on the Sheraton Key Largo during the morning of September 29, efforts to restore the natural ecosystem of South Florida would have been set back years, if not destroyed altogether. There, in a large conference room, sat a who's who of local, state, and federal officials who have recently spent a significant amount of time trying to figure out how we went wrong in the past and what can be done to fix it.
Among the assembled were many of the 41 members of the Commission for a Sustainable South Florida A a group of elected officials, businessmen, and citizens appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles to study the conflict between growth and the environment. Joining them was a federal ecosystem-restoration task force comprising half a dozen upper-level honchos who had flown in from Washington, D.C., plus representatives from several other federal agencies around the state. Also present were members of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board, and an audience numbering close to 100 federal, state, and local officials, developers, environmental activists, and representatives from the farming industry.
"We have a very unusual meeting today," began Richard Pettigrew, a Miami lawyer and chairman of the governor's commission. "It may be historic in that it reflects the effort to bring together the federal agencies, the state, regional, and local agencies...in a joint effort to do the thing that we're all striving to do. And that is to restore the natural assets of our ecosystem in South Florida."
For many people the notion of ecosystem restoration has meant the enormous, if narrow, task of cleaning up the polluted water that poured out of the agricultural areas south of Lake Okeechobee. In 1988 the U.S. Government sued the State of Florida for failing to maintain the quality of water flowing into the Everglades. The legal battle ended in a final settlement this past January, a deal that included the construction of a $14 million marsh, a prototype for a 40,000-acre system of marshes designed to remove farm pollutants from the runoff before it reaches the Everglades.
But the Miccosukee Indians and the environmental group Friends of the Everglades have filed objections to the project, arguing that the proposed federal permits should set stricter limits on pollution leaving the marsh. The groups say that the 1994 Everglades Forever Act, which mandated the marsh, is generally too lenient on the sugar-cane growers who cause most of the pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has permitted the state to operate the marsh temporarily until federal officials decide whether to grant the opponents an administrative hearing.
Despite this pending dispute about water quality, discussion about ecosystem restoration is dominated these days by the issue of water quantity. (Joette Lorion, vice president of Friends of the Everglades, is not pleased with this shift. "It's like doctors getting together and talking about plastic surgery while the hemorrhaging goes on," she muttered, standing outside the Sheraton conference room where the fix-it men and women had gathered. "I think Marjory Stoneman Douglas would be disheartened to hear so little talk about water quality.")
Guiding this ambitious regional planning process is a common awareness that the entire system -- from the headwaters of the Kissimmee River to the coral reefs of the Keys -- is interconnected. What goes into the ground in Belle Glade comes out at Florida Bay. What happens to water levels in Lake Okeechobee will partially govern what pours from your kitchen faucet in Opa-locka.
There is also another common understanding: The natural ecosystem gets first dibs on water. In fact, this is law. Florida statutes require the state to establish the "minimum flow" of water and "minimum water level" in the aquifer at which "further withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology of the area." According to Water Management District attorney Cecile Ross, even though these statutes are more than twenty years old, "they are up for interpretation. We haven't had a lot of litigation because we haven't gotten to the point of water wars. But I think as growth increases in South Florida and we are forced to send more water to the Everglades, we're going to be going to court on these statutes."
A cornerstone of the ongoing efforts to redress the ills of South Florida's ecosystem is the replumbing of the entire canal-and-levee system built by the Army Corps of Engineers. At the Key Largo meeting, the Corps presented a range of proposals from which it will soon choose its restoration strategy. The most modest proposal would simply alter the timing and volume of water that moves through the existing system. The most ambitious plan would create a buffer zone of reservoirs and marshes along the western edge of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties; raise the Tamiami Trail on stilts; and knock down levees that block the natural flow of the Everglades.
Stuart Appelbaum, an Army Corps planner who is leading the replumbing study, told the conference that researchers are "using the natural systems model as a conceptual target. How close are we going to get to that model? I'm not sure at this point." Next month the study team will select a preferred alternative. But Appelbaum, chief of the Corps' Ecosystem Restoration Section in Jacksonville, says completion is a long way off. "The whole project has a pretty damn long timetable: 20 to 30 years or thereabouts," he says. "You have to remember it took almost 40 years to get the project that exists there today." It's premature to say how much any of the plans might cost, but ballpark estimates of about one billion dollars aren't uncommon. A series of public hearings on the proposals is scheduled to end next week. (In a related project, the Water Management District is studying ways to make a reinvigorated canal system more useful to communities in South Dade. See sidebar.)
"I think the good news is that the Corps was able to take a look at what they did over the last 50 years and say, 'We did a heck of a good job in flood control but created havoc in the natural systems and for urban water supply,'" comments Thomas Martin, executive director of the National Audubon Society's Everglades System Restoration Campaign. "And they realized that to fix it, they'd have to undo a lot of the work they already did." Of the various Corps plans under review, he says, the omnibus proposal "really does the job for restoration, and provides more water for agricultural users and urban water users."
The federal government is also devising other restoration projects to complement the long-term sweep of the canal-and-levee replumbing effort:
Late last month the Army Corps agreed to spend 10 years and $101 million to provide a more natural water-delivery system to Everglades National Park through Shark River Slough, the park's main waterway. As an indication of how slow the wheels of government turn, this deal has been a decade in the making. Work is scheduled to begin this year.
The Army Corps is putting bends back into the Kissimmee River. During its first go-round, the Corps transformed the once-meandering river into a ditch. The conversion drained 200,000 acres of marshland and destroyed wildlife habitat and a valuable watershed. But in 1992 Congress authorized the Corps and the Water Management District to reverse the earlier damage.
The Corps has launched a study of Biscayne Bay to investigate its freshwater needs and determine how it hydrologically and biologically fits into the larger South Florida ecosystem.
The Corps is also revamping the design and function of the C-111 Canal, which frames the southwest corner of Dade and runs eastward to Barnes Sound.
At the state level, the Water Management District is studying the idea of creating a buffer strip of marshes and reservoirs along the western boundaries of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. The buffer idea, proposed this past January by the National Audubon Society, is similar to one of the concepts under review by Appelbaum and his Corps replumbers. It would enable the storage of excess storm water that now runs via the canal system directly into bays and the Atlantic Ocean. It includes a strategy of "backpumping" water westward along certain canals to the buffer zone. The preserves would feed water through the subsurface Biscayne Aquifer to the Everglades and, to a lesser degree, would help to replenish the groundwater supply for urban wellfields. In addition, this zone would furnish habitat for wetland plants and animals and would maintain flood protection for urban and agricultural areas.
According to Tommy Strowd, a Water Management District engineer and project manager for the so-called East Coast Buffer concept, his team is looking at an area of about 59,000 acres stretching from east of Card Sound Road, west to Everglades National Park, and north to mid-Palm Beach County, ranging in width from a few thousand feet to about five miles. The estimated price tag for the project A land acquisition and capital costs A totals about $993 million. On October 12, Strowd presented a feasibility study to a joint meeting of the Water Management District's governing board and the county commissions from Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. The reaction was mixed: Some elected officials were frustrated with the lack of available specifics; some environmentalists expressed concern that the district proposes to permit development in certain areas where the aquifer is too porous to support marshes and reservoirs. The district's governing board will decide next month whether to continue with the project.
In a related plan that potentially could be integrated into the East Coast Buffer concept, an interdisciplinary committee of government officials, environmentalists, and rock-mining executives is studying a proposal to convert a string of limestone mines in Northwest Dade into a freshwater lake system. (The mines in that area are some of the most productive in the U.S., yielding roughly half of all the rock and sand used to make concrete, asphalt, and highway foundations in Florida, says Paul Larsen, an environmental engineer working with the mining industry on the plan.) Several years ago a coalition of miners presented the Lake Belt Plan to the state legislature.
The miners' essential motivation was to keep state environmental regulators off their backs. They offered to turn over about 40 square miles of mines to help create an 84-square-mile string of lakes that would function as a water supply, an environmental buffer between the Everglades and urban development, and a recreation area. In return the miners wanted to be able to continue mining until the year 2050 without the hassle of state regulators. (Two layers of environmental regulation -- county and federal -- already cover mining activities in Dade.) The legislature created the committee and essentially decreed that the system be implemented, even though the concept was merely speculative at that point. Water regulators winced. "We didn't have the data in hand to say whether it was viable or not," recalls a state water manager who requested anonymity. "Any time you start digging large lakes, how's it going to impact the restoration efforts of the Everglades ecosystem?"
Fortunately for the hasty politicians, the idea has so far won more supporters than detractors, including Joe Podgor, executive director of Friends of the Everglades and a member of the Lake Belt committee. "It's a big brick wall that keeps the 'Glades on its side and keeps the people on the other," says Podgor, rummaging through an overstuffed filing cabinet in the cluttered and windowless office of Friends of the Everglades in Miami Springs. Somewhere beneath the stacks of documents, file boxes, and mail are a couple of old desks and a phone.
"My Lake Belt file!" Podgor says finally, holding aloft a thick manila folder. Podgor is widely recognized as the man who came up with the idea of a "lake belt" fifteen years ago, but at the time everybody just smiled. "They thought I was nuts," he says. "There was the feeling that there was no end to the water that we had. Everyone thought the only remedy we needed for water problems was money, not planning." When the miners revived the concept, suggesting that old mines be used, Podgor gave them his support.
While he cautions that he's "reserving the right to forget the whole idea," Podgor says the hydrology and other scientific studies so far suggest the plan will achieve its intended goals. But how does one of Dade's long-time environmental activists explain his advocacy for decidedly un-Everglades-like craters full of water? The miners, he points out, were going to dig their holes no matter what: They own the land and they are an incredibly powerful lobby. "The lake plan says we're able to get the use of the land after the miners are through," he says. "And the fact of the matter is we're running out of water and something needs to be done quick. The next thing we'd see was a direct pipeline to the Everglades and to Lake Okeechobee. It was a race against the clock."
The Lake Belt, Podgor concludes, is an opportunity to help restore the wetlands, keep urban and agricultural development away from the Everglades, and create "a recognizable, understandable, indisputable drinking-water source that people would consider sacred. It's either that or the whole shebang collapses -- the 'Glades are gonna go."
As grand as they may be, these long-range visions aren't going to solve all of our water-supply problems. In general, warns the Wilderness Society's Jim Webb, it's misguided to think in terms of an ultimate solution. "I would like to see a refutation of the notion that there is a fixed bunch of shit that you've gotta do out there that will solve the problem," says Webb. "All we're doing is fixing tools to allow the succeeding generations to solve their problems more easily. That's a very uncozy thing for public officials to get their arms around. They want to wrap up the problem. When you take over human domination of a great natural system like this, you're riding the tiger. You don't get off."
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.
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.
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:
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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