South Florida Continues to Struggle with Increase in Water Line Ruptures

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida – Water infrastructure issues are a priority in South Florida after what has appeared to be another broken water or sewer line every week.

Communities in South Florida continue to be affected by outages that result in service disruptions, boil water advisories or hazardous sewage spills.

In Fort Lauderdale, residents are still frustrated after a Florida Power & Light contractor accidentally struck a water pipe in July.

The rupture cut water service to thousands of people and was followed by days of boil water advisories.

“It completely shut down the city,” said neighbor Charles King.

But should officials have seen some of these problems coming?

“It pushed the box down the road,” neighbor and activist Stan Eichelbaum said.

The cost of aging infrastructure is a problem nationwide, but particularly in South Florida, where salt water and rising sea levels have posed unique challenges. Local 10 News asked for figures on the number of water and sewer cuts in 2019 in Fort Lauderdale.

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According to the city, there were 38 water line ruptures through mid-October and 8 sewer spills. But figures from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection revealed more than triple that amount: 25 sewage spills through October.

The DEP has fined the city tens of thousands of dollars for unauthorized sewage discharges and more are on their way for this year. The water line rupture in July was made even more complicated as city officials scrambled to try and find valves to reroute water flow around the rupture. The dated cards contained inaccurate information, and even worse, when they found the valves, they were not working because no one had serviced them for years.

It is an example of the infrastructure improvements estimated at more than one billion dollars that the city will face in the years to come.

“Six years, they took $ 120 million out of our water and sewer system that should have been used for maintenance,” King said. “They didn’t borrow. They called it a return on investment. You know, they took it.”

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Neighbors like King have said the city’s practice of tapping into city-owned water and sewer utilities to fund other urban projects should have stopped long ago.

“What you’re referring to is called return on investment, and it’s common practice,” explained Deputy Director of Public Works Sustainability Dr. Nancy Gassman.

Dr. Nancy Gassman of the City of Fort Lauderdale says the amount of money diverted from sewer and water projects has declined over the years.

She said the city has reduced the amount it takes each year for other city projects.

“We cut it down to $ 10 million. It started at $ 20 million. They took $ 5 million the first year, $ 5 million the next year,” Gassman said. “So the commission is expected to continue this trend over the next two years.”

The city is moving forward with a five-year, $ 610 million capital improvement plan to modernize water, sewer and stormwater systems. Still, it’s unclear whether to replace or repair Fiveash’s aging water treatment plant, and how to pay the estimated cost of over $ 100 million.

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Asked about the misappropriation of funds for water and sewerage, Gassman offered a measured approach.

“We need to stage and stagger the work that we do in infrastructure so that we don’t end up completely disrupting everything in the community,” Gassman said.

“The nation, as a whole, aging infrastructure is a national problem,” said Jennifer Messemer-Skold, spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Water & Sewer Department.

The county is now in the seventh year of its own multi-year, multi-billion dollar capital improvement program.

This stemmed in part from upgrades mandated by the federal government to reduce sewer overflows, an area where data showed the county has made progress.

County figures show 94 sewage outages in 2018, down from the five-year average. Of these, 26 ruptures are believed to have been caused by contractors, contributing to the majority of the volume of spills.

Along with the planned upgrades, Miami-Dade staff said they are proactive and work to avoid downtime before they happen.

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“We have an extensive leak detection program,” Messemer-Skold said. “We put acoustic equipment through the pipes that rates the pipes.”

Miami-Dade Water & Sewer Department spokesperson Jennifer Messemer-Skold says aging infrastructure is a national problem.

Once detected, teams are dispatched to locate a leak and make the necessary repairs before a rupture affects service.

In August, a ruptured sewer line dumped sewage into Oleta River State Park.

Messemer-Skold said the pipe was already on county radar when it suddenly gave way. There were further disruptions in September on the sewer lines along the William Lehman Causeway.

It is not clear if these pipes were identified before the breaks.

In Fort Lauderdale, neighbor and activist Stan Eichelbaum said it was essential for city leaders to stop pushing development until they put infrastructure on the right track.

“We are playing Russian roulette with the lives of a few hundred thousand people and tourists,” he said.

Local 10 News has learned that the current director of public works, Paul Berg, has announced his intention to retire at the end of the year, which has sparked a nationwide search to find the person who will take the job. responds and will guide the city through this process.

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“Right now there is apprehension in the community,” Eichelbaum said. “The only thing that stifles is honesty.”

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