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Florida sewage spills expected to worsen due to ageing infrastructure

Florida has recently experienced several large sewage spills and the issue is expected to worsen in the state due to its growing population, urban development, the climate crisis and ageing infrastructure that frequently cause existing wastewater systems to fail.

For example, between December 2019 to February 2020, more than 230m gallons of sewage spilled into waterways in Fort Lauderdale, the result of ageing water infrastructure.

State officials called the spills the worst on record in state history, as for years Fort Lauderdale diverted funds for needed sewage repairs and maintenance to other city budget needs. The city faces a $2.1m fine from the state for the series of spills.

“A lot of the issues in south Florida with sewage spills has to do with the infrastructure getting very old, much of it is beyond its planned life, usually around 50 years, so there are a lot of cracks in the sewage pipes,” said Dr Rachel Silverstein, a marine biologist and executive director of Miami Waterkeeper.

Silverstein explained sea level rise in south Florida raises water tables underground, which frequently covers sewage pipes, infiltrates cracks and can overwhelm the system, resulting in pipe bursts. The pollution from these spills is already having long-lasting impacts on south Florida’s environment.

Sewage spills are a common problem facing communities in Florida. Between 2015 and March 2020, there were 13,984 reported sewage spills in the state, according to data obtained from the Florida department of environmental protection (FDEP). The FDEP confirmed the statistics obtained from the data.

During this period a staggering 1,658,165,304 gallons of sewage were spilled in Florida, after initial recovery efforts were completed.

In 2020, several large sewage spills have occurred around Florida, in addition to the record spills in Fort Lauderdale. In May, 1.8m gallons spilled in Miami-Dade due to heavy rain and clogged items disrupting flow in the area’s wastewater treatment plant. In March, FDEP data shows a sewage spill of over 20 million gallons occurred in Miami-Dade county. Nearly 26m gallons of untreated sewage was discovered spilling into Sarasota Bay in July. More than 1.2m gallons spilled in the same bay in Bradenton in June. In August, an unknown amount of sewage spilled on the streets of Fort Lauderdale due to a pipe break.

Dr Valerie Harwood, a microbiologist at the University of South Florida, explained there are two categories of concern with sewage spills in the state’s water bodies. Firstly, they introduce pathogenic microorganisms that can harm and infect people, and secondly they can bring excessive nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and carbon that contribute to algal blooms and fish kills.

Rapid urban growth in the state is another factor. Florida is the third most populous state in the US at about 21.5 million people, with population growth estimated to average 1.5% a year through 2024. The state’s population has more than doubled since 1980.

“Our wastewater treatment plants are closer to capacity, so there is less room for error as we have major storm events. Then because we’re building new developments and have to maintain wastewater collection systems, we don’t put a lot more money into these utilities while we put more strain on them,” said Harwood.

Harwood added: “Elected officials need to start thinking about climate change and the anticipated increase of tropical storms, changing rainfall patterns and what we are going to do when we need more capacity for wastewater infrastructure.”

Florida’s population boom has coincided with significant changes due to the climate crisis. Since 1950, sea levels in Florida have risen 8in, with rises accelerating in many parts of the state in recent years. The climate crisis is expected to worsen flooding, exacerbate sea level rises and further intensify tropical storms and hurricanes.

Florida already regularly experiences issues with toxic algal blooms on coastal waters that kill thousands of marine life, cause respiratory issues for nearby communities and induce beach closures. About 1,686 bodies of water in Florida are currently classified as impaired by the FDEP, largely due to pollution created by humans – and much of which is not adequately tackled.

“We’re not getting enough funding, so what we’re seeing is this ageing infrastructure collapse and an increase in sewage spills across the state,” said Jenna Stevens, state director of the policy and action group Environment Florida.

The American Society of Civil Engineers releases an infrastructure report every four years, with its latest report in 2017 noting the funding gap of required investment in replacing and upgrading existing wastewater and drinking water infrastructure throughout the US will continue to grow to $144bn by 2040 unless strategies are implemented to alter current trends.

“Back in the 1970s with the Clean Water Act there was a lot of investment in our wastewater systems and that investment has waned particularly from the federal government. There is going to need to be investment to upgrade and maintain it adequately. If we don’t, we’ll see more of what we saw in Florida with millions of gallons of sewage being released,” said Darren Olson, co-chair of the ASCE Committee for America’s Infrastructure and an engineer who specializes in water resources.

“You have ageing infrastructure trying to keep up with a changing climate. This problem is going to get worse before it gets better but there are things we can do.”

Nationally, the ASCE gave the United States’ wastewater infrastructure a D+, calling for increased public investment, planning and action to meet increasing demands on wastewater treatment systems, and replace or repair ageing and deteriorating infrastructure.

“Our infrastructure has a grade most of us would be horrified to bring home to our parents, but that’s what we have. In order to change, we need to make people aware of it and we need to invest in it,” concluded Olson.

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