Miami-Dade, lagging behind state, seeks cheap, non-icky ways to recycle its wastewater

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Every year, while hundreds of golf courses around the state use treated wastewater to keep fairways emerald green and protect dwindling water supplies, Miami-Dade County taps a surprising source to irrigate its course on Key Biscayne: drinking water.

One of Florida’s biggest water users, no surprise, turns out to be one of its worst recyclers.

Reusing treated wastewater — to irrigate golf courses, parks and farm fields or hydrate wetlands — has for decades been a pillar, along with conservation, for protecting water resources. The state now leads the nation in the amount of water it reuses, with the west coast and inland farming counties reusing close to 100 percent of their wastewater last year, said Mark Elsner, bureau chief of water use for the South Florida Water Management District.

But in South Florida, Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties reuse a meager 4 to 7 percent.

key biscayne golf course2

Drinking water is still used to irrigate the Key Biscayne golf course because using treated wastewater has so far proved too costly.

Patrick Farrell Miami Herald

By 2025, that’s supposed to change when a 2008 state law requiring counties that now dump most of their wastewater offshore in massive pipes to begin reusing 60 percent. In Miami-Dade, that amounts to 117 million gallons a day. Up until last year, the county had a solid plan: pipe 90 million gallons a day from its south district plant to nearby Turkey Point to help cool two new nuclear plants, along with millions flushed daily deep underground. But last year, Florida Power & Light shelved the reactors and set no new deadline, leaving the county with no place to send the water. Or comply with the law.

The county is now facing expensive alternatives and deciding whether to challenge the law. A plan detailing options is expected to be completed by December.

“The language in the statute says the reuse needs to be economically reasonable and technically feasible,” said deputy water and sewer director Doug Yoder. “We would be inclined to say if it increases the cost [of water] by a factor of 10, that hardly seems on its face to be economically reasonable.”

reuse pipe construction

Purple pipe is used to designate treated wastewater. In some counties, new developments are required to install the pipes but older neighborhoods the price can be costly.

Patrick Farrell South Florida Water Management District

How Miami-Dade and Broward got here can be traced to rapid growth, efforts to conserve water and a unique reliance on a shallow aquifer that was easily recharged by rainfall.

In the 1970s, fast-growing coastal communities in South Florida were allowed to flush their treated waste offshore. That started changing in the 1980s and 1990s when it became clear that dumping had environmental consequences and wasted a valuable resource. Many newer communities were required to begin installing purple pipes to carry treated wastewater mostly for irrigation, a practice long used by farms.

In the beginning, overcoming the “ick” factor was a challenge, Elsner said.

“Back in the ’80s when we were trying to transition and help utilities with their disposal issues, they would give the water away to the golf courses,” Elsner said.

But as the number of golf courses grew, and demand increased, it became clear that reuse was a more reliable source than local retention ponds or groundwater, which could dry up or come under restrictions during droughts.

The dual threats of increasing use and saltwater intrusion tied to sea rise also made the need more urgent. Over the next 20 years, more than half the state is expected to have critical water supply problems. In South Florida, where saltwater intrusion is already threatening drinking water wellfields, water managers say 90 percent of the region will be in trouble.

But finding an answer wasn’t always easy. Tearing up roads to install pipes can be costly. Coastal communities also struggle with saltwater seeping into aging sewer lines, requiring costly additional treatment.

“It’s not that we don’t want to do it and don’t think this is good for the environment. But there’s a balance,” said Alan Garcia, director of Broward’s water and sewer department. “You can’t tell someone, ‘Hey, I’m going to double your utility bill to get these pipes in the ground.’ 

reuse facility

More than 600 million gallons a day of treated wastewater is flushed in deep injection wells or ocean outfall pumps. State officials hope to change that by requiring counties to reuse 60 percent of wastewater.

Patrick Farrell South Florida Water Management District

Broward County, which must reuse just 22.4 million gallons a day to comply with the law — a quarter of Miami-Dade’s quota — cut a deal with Palm Beach County. Palm Beach agreed to pay for installation in return for a steady supply to golf courses in the southwest corner of the county, Garcia said. Broward is also sending water to Pompano Beach. Altogether, the county expects to spend $120 million to meet the requirement, he said.

Monroe County, which is not subject to the law because it never used ocean outfall, reuses some of its water but has a harder time finding users since so little is used for irrigation, said Julie Cheon, a spokeswoman for the Florida Keys Aquaduct Authority.

Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, which Elsner said have become models, now reuse between 30 and 50 percent of wastewater. The Loxahatchee River District in Jupiter, which once dumped waste in the river, now uses treated wastewater to irrigate Roger Dean Stadium, 14 golf courses, 14 parks and 4,500 lawns.

In Miami, the solution is proving thornier.

miami dade water reuse facility

In 2009, John Renfrow, director of the Miami-DAde Water & Sewer Department, unveiled a water reclamation plant to treat wastewater for irrigation and other uses. The county must reuse 117 million gallons a day by 2025 and had planned on sending it to cooling towers for new reactors at Turkey Point, but the reactors are now on hold.

Allison Diaz/For the Miami Heral Allison Diaz/For the Miami Heral

Because it used the outfall pipes, the county over the years piped its wastewater to three regional plants. So getting the treated water to users would likely require costly infrastructure and tearing up road.

There’s also the question of the quality of the water. At the Virginia Key plant, most of the waste comes through aging leaky pipes that are contaminated with saltwater. When the county considered it as a source for reused water, they discovered it would need to have the salt removed in a costly process called reverse osmosis.

The county had also considered sending the water deep into the Floridan aquifer as a way of recharging water supplies. But the cost of running pumps to inject so much water deep underground is a concern.

“So for us to start replenishing the Floridan aquifer is not achieving an actual water use benefit other than it’s satisfying the outfall act,” he said.

The county has also investigated using reclaimed water as a way to replenish wetlands. In Gainesville, treated wastewater was used to restore a 1,300-acre wetland. But in South Florida, where marshes and bays are nearly free of nutrients, the water would have to undergo additional cleaning to eliminate the phosphorus and nitrogen. A project that would have provided wastewater to coastal wetlands along Biscayne Bay would have cost $500 million, Yoder said.

“You really have to get to reverse osmosis, which is very expensive to do,” he said.

Yoder said the county has also been a victim of its own success at conservation efforts. Combined with changing patterns of development and low-flow plumbing, it now expects to have enough water to last through 2035, he said.

“It’s all condos. It’s not subdivisions out in tomato fields,” he said.

Because of high costs, Yoder said the county is talking to other agencies, like the national parks, about sharing costs or paying for the reused water it would receive. Take the Key Biscayne golf course. When the county looked at building a plant on Virginia Key to treat the water and ship it to golf courses on Key Biscayne and Miami Beach, the cost came to $30 million.

“That would have been a lot more than them just buying drinking water,” he said.

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