Making a Stink

Florida groups are pushing to stop the flow of sewage into the ocean

By Gina Pace

Scuba divers encounter a sewage outfall pipe in the Atlantic Ocean off the South Florida coast. Photo courtesy Steve Spring of Palm Beach County Reef Rescue

South Florida may be famous for its scenic beaches, but there’s nothing picturesque about the sewage being piped into the Atlantic Ocean just a few miles off the coast.

Dumping human waste into waterways is a common practice. Some 800 US cities release a mixture of water and raw sewage into lakes and streams whenever as little as a quarter-inch of rain overwhelms wastewater treatment systems. And, as in South Florida, dozens more pipe sewage into the ocean that has been treated to remove solids and some organisms, but is not safe to drink. Some Floridians are working to change that—at least in their own backyard.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and a handful of lawmakers are trying to push Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties to cease the dumping of 300 million gallons of lightly treated sewage into the Atlantic every day. Through potential legislation and tighter permitting, they are trying to get those counties to recycle wastewater to protect the environment and natural resources.

“Rather than looking at this as a problem, we need to look at it as a great opportunity,” says Florida state Senator Paula Dockery, who penned a bill that rewards Florida counties with grants if they can develop alternative water supplies. “This could help us solve our water woes.”

Water conservation is just one of the reasons for upgrading the wastewater treatment plants. Dockery proposes that the water could be reused for irrigation, or with more treatment, drinking water. That could make a big difference in a state where sections have been operating in drought conditions for most of the year.

Environmentalists also point out that the sewage contains higher levels of contaminates like nitrogen and ammonia that encourage algae blooms and disease in the coral reefs just off Florida’s coast. While few data confirm a direct relationship between sewage and reef degradation, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists explain that proving a direct link has been difficult because global warming, deep ocean upwellings and storm-water runoff also cause increased nutrients.

But some county officials argue that the cost of upgrading treatment systems – at least $2 billion for Miami-Dade County alone – is prohibitive and might not save reefs.

“The underlying assumption is that discharge from the outfalls is not doing the reefs any good,” says Douglas Yoder, deputy director of Miami-Dade County’s Water and Sewer Department. “But if you spent the money that would be needed to stop the discharges, would you see any difference in the reefs?”

The local governments in South Florida are not the only ones currently resisting upgrades to sewage systems. In November, the city council of San Diego, California, voted to request a waiver – its third since treatment standards were increased in 1990 – from the EPA rather than make an estimated $1.5 billion in repairs to a wastewater treatment plant that dumps 180 million gallons a day of lightly treated sewage offshore.

In other cities, lawsuits have brought about change. Arguably the most famous example comes from Boston, where in the mid-1980s a federal court ordered the city to treat water to a higher standard and pipe it nine miles offshore, rather than dumping it in Boston Harbor. “It has worked very well,” says Robert Buchsbaum, a conservation scientist with Massachusetts Audubon who sat on an advisory board for the project, which was completed in 1999. “Water clarity has improved, nutrient levels are lower—it looks to be a healthy, thriving habitat.”

More recently, spurred by complaints that Indianapolis’s 150-year-old system disproportionately spewed raw sewage into waterways in minority neighborhoods, in 2006 the city agreed to create a 20-year plan to reduce the overflows. The $1.86 billion renovation will eliminate at least 95 percent of the outflows, according to Carlton Ray, deputy director of public works in Indianapolis.

In Florida, the DEP is waiting for the legislature’s proposal to solve the problem, says spokesman Stephen Webster. If elected officials can’t come to an agreement, the agency will review more carefully the outfall permits it issues when they’re up for renewal, and include specific conditions to move away from the practice, he says.

“The DEP and the State of Florida are concerned about the health and longevity of the reefs,” Webster says. “Any new proposals to help protect coral reefs and protect valuable water resources are considered a win-win situation.”

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