Monday, January 2, 2012

Get used to it, South Florida ? pipes are breaking and it?s only going to get worse

The hectic nature of Christmas Eve ? last-minute presents to buy, family to entertain, meals to cook ? can be a mountain of stress. Now try keeping it together after all the faucets stop running.

That was the challenge presented to more than 200,000 Broward County homes and businesses this holiday season, after a ruptured water line left families high and, quite literally, dry. On Christmas Day, though the water was again flowing, it had to be boiled before families could be assured it was safe.

For South Florida?s aging water and sewer pipes, it was but the latest example of an underground infrastructure that has repeatedly experienced breaks ? sometimes with serious consequences. Folks typically don?t think about their water and sewer pipes until something goes wrong, so it?s certainly not good news that residents across Broward County have recently had pipelines on their minds.

It?s become an issue in Fort Lauderdale, Oakland Park and Wilton Manors ? all cities affected by the Christmas Eve water line break. It?s become a quite-smelly issue in parts of Hollywood, where a November sewer main rupture sent millions of raw sewage into a nearby neighborhood and canal.

In Miramar, even pipe replacements have proved contentious, as residents of eastern Miramar say a year-long $4 million sewer project has caused flooding so bad that streets become miniature lakes when it rains.

?It?s a coincidence that they all happened around the same time,? said Fort Lauderdale Public Works Director Albert Carbon. Fort Lauderdale?s water utility provides service to several cities, which is why the Christmas Eve break affected other municipalities as well. Fort Lauderdale?s system also experienced a sewer break in October near the Harbor Shoppes on Cordova Road ? a break that sent a stinky mess into the roadway and surrounding parking lot.

The problem is replacing underground pipes ? some of them dating back to the 1940s or 1950s ? isn?t unique to South Florida. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation?s sewer system a D-minus grade, noting that aging pipes discharge billions of gallons of untreated wastewater into U.S. waterways each year.

The environmental group Cry of the Water, comprised of divers concerned about illegal dumping, argues that repeated spill can destroy the environment unless infrastructure needs are addressed.

?These old pipes are leaking,? organization director Dan Clark said after Hollywood?s November sewer break. ?It?s only going to get worse.?

The federal government?s stimulus bill contained millions of dollars for Florida water and sewer improvements, but the sheer depth of the upgrades needed means that local governments often have to foot most of the bill themselves. Money for system repairs typically comes from the water and sewer rates paid by utility customers.

In the midst of the sluggish economy, some utilities have been loathe to hit customers with whopping increases, preferring to raise bills more modestly and tackle the problem over time.

?Infrastructure is not something you can fix overnight,? said city of Hollywood spokeswoman Raelin Storey.

Early in 2010, Miami-Dade County had its own flurry of pipe breaks ? a 54-inch water main break in Hialeah flooded homes and caused a large sinkhole, and several months later a 72-inch sewage pipe burst and sent raw sewage pouring into Biscayne Bay.

Miami-Dade?s Water and Sewer Department?s had requested an 18 percent increase the previous year, with infrastructure improvements its top priority. Instead, county commissioners approved a pair of 6 percent increases.

?It?s a balancing act for us,? said department spokeswoman Jennifer Messemer. ?Maintaining the quality of water and sewer services with being able to provide a cost-effective rate for our residents.?

Miami-Dade operates the largest water and sewer utility in the Southeast, providing water to more than 2 million customers and monitoring about 6,200 miles? worth of sewer lines. The county?s leak detection system includes lowering acoustical equipment underground, which records the noise emanating from the pipes and can be used to pinpoint cracks or other issues.

But at the end of the day, not all leaks can be prevented, especially when a frequent cause across South Florida is not age or decay but actually local construction crews who made an unfortunate mistake.

?Think of it as your car,? Messemer said. ?Things break, and no matter how proactive we can be, unfortunately there are going to be times that we do have pipe failures.?


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