Village taking proactive steps to study, and hopefully conquer, water quality issues
The “No Contact with Water” precautionary advisory that included Crandon North Beach, Virginia Key Beach and Fisher Island having been lifted, Jennifer Messemer-Skold of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department took time to reflect. A bit of frustration, albeit cheerfully expressed, was apparent in her voice.
Sewage did not overflow into waterways adjacent to WASD’s Central District Wastewater Treatment Plant on Oct. 12, said the agency’s media and public relations officer. Chlorinated water did.
Contrary to rumor, at no point did the WASD system suffer a line break, she added. The spill happened because of a power outage, at which point WASD “went to generator power” to reset, but it could do little about the fluid already in the system, forced on its way by gravity.
About 235,000 gallons of treated water were involved, 200,000 gallons of which WASD recovered before it could get into the waterway.
It wasn’t the first time Miami-Dade beaches had been closed, but previous closures did not involve the treatment plant or broken lines, she said.
An advisory was issued on Oct. 3 after water samples collected at Crandon North Beach, Virginia Key Beach, Key Biscayne Beach Club, Cape Florida and Surfside 93rd Street exceeded federal and state recommended standard for enterococci, the bacteria that indicates fecal contamination.
Such bacteria may enter storm drains as a result of stormwater runoff or sewage from humans and animals, and high tides, heavy rains and flooding contribute to it.
“Our department is unfairly taking the blame for these things,” Messemer-Skold said.
Concern about water quality is, however, real for all concerned, said Messemer-Skold. As bacteria counts having risen and fallen for months beach closings have impacted hte island’s lifestyle and raised health concerns.
Key Biscayne residents will have an opportunity to hear water experts discuss the quality issue during a workshop at 6 p.m. on Nov. 5 in Council chambers. This is where “we can dedicate the time and energy to a thoughtful and productive workshop, as opposed to an unplanned Q&A of county staff in a public setting,” said Village Manager Andrea Agha.
“We sense the most pressing question is (whether Key Biscayne’s) sewage system is in any way related to the beach closings,” Agha wrote members of Council members on Oct. 15, the day before the no-contact advisory was lifted.
Part of the underlying problem may be an aging infrastructure.
“We have been advised by WASD leadership, through their collection system staff, that most of the old part of the village’s collection system was installed between 1965 and 1981 and most of it is vitrified clay pipe,” she wrote.
Furthermore, about 220 homes on Key Biscayne remain on older lines or have septic tanks and drainfields. Homes with septic system are required to switch to sewers by July, 2020. Septic systems are under the jurisdiction of the Florida Department of Health, according to Messemer-Skold.
The Village and WASD are working together to address the water quality issue, said Agha.
Three “smart manhole covers” that react when levels in the collection system rise and threaten overflow have been in place for one to two years, she said, and “they have recorded no overflows in the past year.”
Two more “smart” covers were added in February “to better understand tidal influences on the collection system,” Agha added. “There have been no overflows at those locations and no indications of levels in the system indicating excessive infiltration of groundwater.”
She agreed with Messemer-Skold about wastewater and environmental conditions.
“(It) could exfiltrate into ground water and be tidally moved out toward beaches; this is one reason we are monitoring groundwater levels compared to the elevation of sewer lines,” she wrote. “Most recently, it seems apparent that the extreme tides have had an impact in terms of street flooding that eventually finds its way back to the bay. In addition to the work we are doing with WASD, the village is also working with the University of Miami on the bacterial source testing.”
Still, Agha, who updates council members regularly about effluent-related matters, said her office has requested maps and records “regarding televising of the collection system to determine the extent to which leaks are allowing ground water to infiltrate into the lines or the reverse, sewage in to the ground water.”
Over the next several weeks, staff members at WASD will televise the system to determine the level of exfiltration of sewer system waste to ground water, if any.