Hot Water

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In Northwest Miami-Dade there's a long, lonely stretch of Florida's Turnpike that goes 65 blocks without a single exit. From NW 41st to 106th Street, there are no bathroom breaks, no gas station cappuccinos, and a ten-mile turnaround for the distracted driver who misses an exit at either end.

With this inconvenience in mind, construction on a $64.3 million interchange at NW 74th Street is slated to begin in January 2007. There's only one potential problem: Half the county's water supply — some 150 million gallons — passes each day through a 96-inch water main that lies directly beneath the proposed exit.

The main is the only path for raw water traveling from the Northwest Wellfield, where it is pumped from the ground, to the Hialeah-Preston treatment plants, where it is rendered drinkable. If the pipe breaks, hundreds of thousands of people as far south as Miami Beach and downtown would be without potable water, potentially for days.

Employees at the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department (WASD) fear exactly that scenario, and public records show that their objections and concerns about the turnpike interchange were overridden in the interest of completing the project as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) first presented its plans to WASD early this year, and department engineers immediately voiced concerns. On March 7, senior professional engineer Rafael Ballesteros wrote, "We came to the conclusion that the proposed design submitted to us ... is not acceptable because it will put the 96-inch raw main in jeopardy."

According to a WASD employee who requested anonymity out of fear of termination (at least eight employees have been fired from the troubled department in the past month, including Ballesteros, who had worked there for 30 years), WASD higherups ignored this warning, and the department granted a go-ahead for the turnpike project.

If a piece of heavy machinery accidentally breaks, a veritable lake would form. WASD does not stockpile pipes of the water main's size, and it would take days to order a replacement pipe or make repairs.

FDOT says such concerns are exaggerated and contends the chances of the pipe breaking are minimal. "All buried utility lines which are [under] pressure have the chance for a blowout," a turnpike representative wrote in an unsigned e-mail forwarded to Riptide by spokesperson Sonyha Rodriguez-Miller. "In the case of the 96-inch line, the risk is relatively low for any impact to the facility."

But even some transportation employees have voiced worries. "The threat of a blowout is real," concluded turnpike utility administrator Lawrence Hayduk in a May 25 e-mail.

On September 12, county commissioners placed care of the site under FDOT's control, further undermining WASD objections.

Has it all been done too quickly? "Due to the aggressive schedule to deliver the new access point and express toll plaza to the citizens of Miami-Dade, the plans moved quickly into the final stages," the unnamed turnpike representative wrote to Riptide.

The water main's projected life span is 50 years, half of which has passed. In 25 years the new interchange might have to be torn up anyway. -Emily Witt

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