An accident in July that temporarily left Fort Lauderdale and nearby towns without drinking water was a rude reminder of the city’s underground infrastructure issues – which are proving not only inconvenient to endure but also expensive to fix. In a recent sign of the times, city commissioners nearly doubled connection fees for water and sewer service to just under $4,000 – the first change in these fees in at least 10 years.
Forced to virtually cede control of its sewer system to the state in 2017 after an embarrassing series of spills, the city government of Fort Lauderdale is worried about its water system, too, after a pipe rupture closed the city’s main water treatment plant in July and caused a boil-water notice for more than 200,000 homes and businesses. “This was a wakeup call for us in many ways,” Mayor Dean Trantalis said at the city commission’s Aug. 20 conference meeting.
Two years ago, the city faced potential charges of violating state law for sewer pipe failures and other incidents that released a total of 20.9 million gallons of untreated wastewater into surface water and groundwater in 49 spills from 2014 to 2017. In a legal settlement with the state called a consent order, the city government did not admit it violated state law but paid $334,577 of civil penalties and agreed to make state-ordered upgrades to the sewer system with an estimated total cost of $86 million. Among other mandated tasks, the city must update maps of its sewer system. The consent order also requires the city to file progress reports every six months with the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Fort Lauderdale faces costly challenges not just on the sewer side but also the water side of its utility operations. The city’s 65-year-old water treatment plant along Prospect Road, just west of Interstate 95, needs substantial repair or replacement, and although the plant didn’t cause the mid-July emergency, it played a central role. A subcontractor working for Florida Power & Light at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport accidentally impaled a pipe carrying raw water from a wellfield west of the airport to the Fiveash Regional Water Treatment Plant, shutting off the flow of drinking water not only in Fort Lauderdale but also in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, Oakland Park, Port Everglades, Sea Ranch Lakes, Wilton Manors and sections of Davie and Tamarac. The shutoff triggered a 48-hour boil-water notice. Residents were advised to use only boiled tap water or bottled water for drinking, making ice, preparing food, washing dishes and brushing teeth.
Restoring the water supply took longer than initially expected, largely because a city map of Fort Lauderdale’s underground water system failed to show the exact location of the nearest valve where crews could turn off the flow of raw water into the broken pipe. The valve’s location on a city map “was about six feet off where the valve actually was,” Chris Lagerbloom, city manager, told the city commissioners at their Aug. 20 conference meeting. “Unfortunately, those valves are underground. There is no manhole. Literally, you dig along the pipe until you find the valve.”
An FPL subcontractor called Florida Communication Concepts broke the water pipe on July 17 while repairing electrical lines. The city had to “power down” the Fiveash Regional Water Treatment Plant, Lagerbloom said, after it lost the minimum water pressure it needed to operate. The plant had stopped supplying drinking water by 11:30 a.m. on July 18. But by the end of the day, the pressure returned to normal and the plant began supplying water again, after city crews temporarily plugged the broken pipe with a log and reinforced the wooden plug by pouring a concrete bunker around it. The state government, meanwhile, sent Fort Lauderdale 100,000 bottles of water from an emergency reserve, which the city began distributing to citizens at three pick-up sites.
The incident “tested our unanticipated-emergency response,” Lagerbloom told commissioners Aug. 20. “We were able to get the pipe back into service on the same day it broke, but we were without water for a period of time.” The city manager also said he would propose a utility action plan in early October, which may include a suggestion to revive on-site inspections of water and sewer lines by city crews, a practice the city ended to save money.
The water outage in July stressed businesses and property owners. Some hotels, restaurants and stores temporarily closed, while building, managers faced a threat to high-rise air conditioning systems that circulate chilled water to cool interiors. In a high-rise setting, “I didn’t realize you lose AC when water’s gone. I did learn it,” City Commissioner Heather Moraitis said, citing multiple phone calls from citizens who temporarily faced that double jeopardy.
More than just temporarily turning off the taps, the July emergency underscored Fort Lauderdale’s vulnerability to a sudden loss of production at its main water treatment plant. Named after Charles W. Fiveash, the city’s water superintendent from 1941 to 1954, the fragile Fiveash water plant opened in the final year of his term with a capacity to treat eight million gallons a day – which has expanded to 70 million gallons a day along with local population growth. But a major hurricane or another type of calamity could turn off the taps again. “We need to make a decision soon about the Fiveash Water Treatment Plant,” Mayor Trantalis said in a state-of-the-city speech on Feb. 28. “Experts have told us that the plant is at significant risk of failure. A study is underway of whether it would be better to repair it or build a new plant.”
However, the potential cost of just fixing the water treatment plant has been staggering. At their regular meeting Aug. 22, city commissioners rejected an entire set of bids for repairs to the Fiveash plant. The lowest bidder wanted $47.2 million – far more than the $32 million cost the commission had expected.
A few weeks later, the commissioners jacked up the connection fees for water and sewer service at their Sept. 17 meeting. They upped the connection fees by 42 percent for water service (from $1,386 to $1,977) and by 109 percent for wastewater service (from $651 to $1,888) – raising the combined fee for both water and sewer connections from $2,037 to $3,865, an 89 percent increase.
Water and sewer customers will get a reprieve on monthly rates during the city’s 2020 fiscal year, but a series of rate increases may unfold after 2020. Though they nearly doubled connection fees, city commissioners held the line on water and sewer rates at their Sept. 17 meeting. The monthly water and wastewater rate for a typical customer using 5,000 gallons a month went up just 1 percent, from $66.27 to $67.13. The commissioners’ decision on rates will have a neutral impact on city revenue from water and sewer services in fiscal 2020 – as recommended by Santec Corp., a consulting firm the city retained for water-and-sewer guidance. But beyond 2020, Santec also has recommended city approval of four consecutive water and sewer rate increases in fiscal years 2021 through 2024.
According to a report by Santec, the city needs more revenue from its water and sewer systems to cover not only operating costs but also capital expenditures, including the replacement of aging pipes before they fail. The consulting firm recommended 5 percent annual increases in combined water and sewer rates in each fiscal year from 2021 through 2024. Do the math: That would raise the monthly bill for a typical customer using 5,000 gallons a month from $67.13 in fiscal 2020 to $81.59 in 2024. The financial impact would be particularly acute for water and sewer customers outside Fort Lauderdale, who pay a 25 percent surcharge for service.
Florida municipalities have ample flexibility in setting water and sewer rates, according to bond-rating agency Moody’s, which has given Fort Lauderdale’s water and wastewater systems an Aa1 rating.
“Florida utilities have unlimited rate-setting autonomy, which supports stability in financial operations,” Moody’s said in a report. In Fort Lauderdale, the water and wastewater system’s “credit position is very strong, and its Aa1 rating is above the U.S. water and wastewater systems’ median of Aa3.”
Fort Lauderdale will need plenty of financial strength to afford big-ticket water and sewer projects. Among others, the city government plans to update maps of its water system after mapping its wastewater system, as required in its consent order from the state.
“The water system [mapping] will take longer. You’re probably talking a good two- or three-year process … The water system is about twice as big as the sewer system, so you’ve got more mains, more valves,” Paul Berg, the city’s public works director, told commissioners at their Aug. 20 conference.
“The system has been built in the last 50, 60 years, so a lot of the earlier systems weren’t as well documented as they are these days,” Berg said. “We don’t have precise information everywhere in the system where all the key valves are that isolate big lines.”
Mapping alone wouldn’t prevent water-system failures but could mitigate them. “We have old pipes still – that hasn’t changed – and they’ll break. But we’ll be able to isolate them quicker and fix them faster,” Berg said. “At this point, we need to regroup and develop a way to fund the water side [of the utility mapping effort], at least on a phased basis. It’s a funding issue.”
Part of the solution may lie in breaking unhelpful habits. Speaking at the city commissioners’ regular meeting on Aug. 20, Fort Lauderdale resident Charlie King urged them to stop diverting funds from the city’s utility budget to meet other needs. “We were stealing $20 million a year out of our [water and sewer] budget,” King said. “I hope you guys have discussed getting it down to ‘cold turkey’ level and just not take any money from our failing water and sewer system.”
“We discussed not going completely ‘cold turkey’ but bringing it down in half,” Trantalis responded. “We’re slowly getting there.”