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Over the decades, billions of gallons of partially treated sewage have flushed their way from South Florida toilets to the Atlantic Ocean.

Six plants jettisoned wastewater from outfall pipes in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, releasing massive clouds that cause the surface to look like it is boiling.

Environmental concerns spurred lawmakers into action and in 2008 the state enacted a law to end regular use of the pipes by 2025.

Nearly a decade later, all of the treatment plants are on track to meet the deadline, according to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, the agency charged with monitoring their progress.

Already, two pipes have almost entirely stopped flowing in Palm Beach County, where conservationists say they’ve begun to see an improvement. Meanwhile, the four other pipes — two in Broward, two in Miami-Dade — collectively flush coastal waters with an average of 188 million gallons of wastewater every day.

To reduce flows ahead of the deadline, cities and counties are building new plants, drilling deep underground wells and upgrading treatment systems to reuse more freshwater.

Boca Raton utility customers saw an 8 percent increase in 2008 to help cover their costs, while Broward’s rate already increases about 3 percent each year — enough to pay for any upgrades, according to interviews with wastewater management officials.

Officials in Miami-Dade and Hollywood haven’t yet said how much of an increase customers could see in their bills.

Since 2008, treatment plants have reduced flows from the outfall pipes by about 37 percent, from a daily average of more than 300 million gallons before the law went into effect, officials said.

“If they are on schedule and actually close down the outfalls, I would consider that to be a major victory for the environment,” said Burt Saunders, the former state senator responsible for the law.

Out of the pipe and into the ocean

After the toilet flushes, it’s the treatment plants’ problem. But what do you do with sewage from 6 million South Floridians?

Some of it gets recycled to water places like golf courses. Some gets injected into underground wells. The excess … well, most South Florida wastewater treatment plants have flushed the excess through pipes about 1 to 3 miles offshore since the 1970s.

Treatment plants disinfect the sewage before it heads to the ocean but leave behind concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

Though the nutrients do not pose a direct threat to humans, the chemical cocktail of partly treated human waste feeds algal blooms that form thick, green mats of seaweed, said Brian LaPointe, Florida Atlantic University research professor at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

Florida’s coral reefs, the third largest barrier reef system in the world, are being smothered like hash browns, but it’s not in melted cheese.

The seaweed smothers coral and washes up on South Florida’s beaches, he said. LaPointe, who has been monitoring the reefs since the early 1980s, has watched coral populations dwindle from 80 percent reef cover to just 4 percent, he said.

“The concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus on the reef right now are too high for healthy coral growth,” LaPointe said.

Florida’s 360-mile-long reef is a natural masterpiece that acts as a protective barrier and a marine nursery. It’s also an economic engine that drives tourism and commercial fishing estimated to generate $1.9 billion for South Florida each year, according to a 2006 Department of Environmental Protection report.

The partially treated sewage is one of many stressors contributing to the coral’s decline. Others include rising ocean temperatures, dredging, farm and lawn runoff.

Lawmakers used LaPointe’s research and others’ as the foundation for the law that called for ending the regular use of the pipes. Saunders filed the legislation during his last term in office in 2008 while serving as the Senate’s environmental committee chairman.

It was a fairly easy sell, Saunders said.

“It was something that really was the right thing regardless of whether it had a direct impact on people,” Saunders said. “You just cannot dump that much polluted water into the ocean every day and not have some localized impacts.”

Samuel Falcon, 25, was the last of his dive group to enter the waters off Pompano Beach last fall. He dropped into a big, brown plume of freshwater. “I was confused until I saw it,” he said.

There, about a 100 feet underwater, he found the 4.5-foot-wide opening of Broward County’s northern outfall pipe, Falcon said.

Inside the opening sat a goliath grouper — likely looking to make a meal of the fish that often swarm the cloud, he said.

“If we were to take customers, they would give us an earful about how gross it was,” Falcon said. “Your impression is it’s filthy water being introduced to the reef environment.”

Plans to close the outfalls

The Delray/Boynton Beach pipe was the first to end regular use in 2009. Boca Raton transitioned to reusing nearly 100 percent of its wastewater about two years ago, said Chris Helfrich, Boca utility director.

The plant treats the water and sells it to large-scale water users, such as golf courses, and an estimated 1,600 commercial and residential properties, he said.

“Taking freshwater and putting it in the ocean wasn’t something that Boca believed was good policy,” Helfrich said. “We always believed there was better use of the freshwater.”

Broward and Miami-Dade face their own sets of challenges: Large service populations, saltwater intrusion and aging sewer systems have made it more difficult and more expensive to end use of the pipes.

Miami-Dade estimates it will cost about $5.7 billion to comply with the legislation, according to a 2016 compliance plan update. Most of the funding will come from bonds and loans, but utility customers can expect to pay off the debt through periodic rate increases, according to the report.

Broward’s two outfall pipe operators — one in Pompano Beach and the other in Hollywood — estimate it will cost them a $100 million each.

In Hollywood, saltwater leaks into small cracks in its aging sewer system, making it difficult for the wastewater treatment plant to reuse as much water as other plants, said Steve Joseph, Hollywood’s director of public utilities.

Complying with the regulations is a balancing act between meeting requirements and hiking utility rates, Joseph said.

“That’s one of the things we’ve been trying to let the folks at Tallahassee know. Every one of us want to try and do the right thing, but at the end of the day, you are a utility,” Joseph said. “At the end of the day, you are going to have people choking because you have to raise rates.”

Hollywood plans to conduct a study to determine if, or by how much, the utility would need to raise rates to comply with the law, said Joann Hussey, a city spokeswoman.

Miami-Dade has similar problems, but bigger.

The Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department is the largest in the Southeast United States, serving about 2.3 million people, said Jennifer Messemer-Skold, Miami-Dade spokeswoman.

Every day, Miami-Dade’s pipes dump about 151 million gallons into the ocean, she said.

To meet the 2025 deadline, the plant plans to build a fourth wastewater treatment plant for about $350 million, said Hardeep Anand, the department’s deputy director.

Additionally, the county plans to build 25 deep-injection wells by 2025, he said.

Treatment plants in Broward have similar plans to build four more wells to meet the deadline. Most wells store the partially treated sewage at least 3,000 feet underground, below aquifers used for drinking water.

“From a regular person’s standpoint, as consumers we tend to take things for granted,” Anand said. “When you flush your toilet, the water magically disappears.”

Moving forward

Even after all of the wastewater-treatment plants end regular use of the outfall pipes, they won’t permanently shutter them.

The legislation allows plants to keep using them, as needed, for emergencies.

Despite ending regular use in 2009, the Delray/Boynton Beach outfall pipe most recently discharged 12.2 million gallons into the ocean in March, said Doug Levine, South Central Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant manager.

Levine said he isn’t sure what overwhelmed the filtration system and upset the plant earlier this year. But it’s sometimes caused by a buildup of grease and oils, resulting in the discharge.

Plants can discharge for other reasons, too, including excess flows from heavy rains.

But the occasional discharge doesn’t really bother Ed Tichenor, whose research was also used to help pass the 2008 legislation.

Tichenor, director of Palm Beach County Reef Rescue, said there’s a difference between the occasional use and dumping millions of gallons every single day.

“It degrades the environment. However, to be realistic, they closed the outfall and are only using it under certain circumstances, which are written into the permit,” he said. “The reefs are in much, much better condition since the [Boynton/Delray] outfall was closed.”

Some scientists disagree about the size of the impact wastewater has had on the marine habitat relative to other threats, such as dredging, rising ocean temperatures and agricultural runoff.

Fred Bloetscher, an associate professor of civil engineering at Florida Atlantic University, said it’s easy to blame the pipes, but they are not the top contributors.

“I think it’s reasonable if we are going to spend those billions, how are we going to get the best bang for our buck?” Bloetscher said.

Still, LaPointe said reducing the concentration of nutrients and closing the pipes gives coral a fighting chance.

“The rules are there to phase out those outfalls by 2025. Once that is done these waters are going to clean up, but don’t forget there are more people moving to Florida all the time.”

[email protected], 561-243-6544, or on Twitter @RyanVanVelzer

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