County get $20 million from feds to step up septic tanks conversion; 28 Key Biscayne properties included

Miami-Dade County just got a $20 million boost in federal funds that can be used for one of its most arduous tasks: converting 120,000 septic tank properties to sewer to combat pollution in Biscayne Bay.

A portion of the funds also was earmarked for other priorities, including stormwater drainage upgrades and a Biscayne Bay assessment and monitoring regime.

With about 120,000 homes throughout the county – including 28 on Key Biscayne – targeted for the septic sanitation tank to sewer conversion project, Miami-Dade sought state and federal funds that could push the project to the $200 million threshold.

The project can benefit the 28 Key Biscayne homeowners by increasing property values by being connected to a municipal sewer system. Plus, the positive environmental impact from moving to sewer comes because it eliminates the seepage from septic systems into the Biscayne Bay.

The county decided to focus its efforts on the Bay’s pollution problem when it resulted in the infamous 2020 fish kills and the death of large swaths of seagrass meadows.

The county even created Miami-Dade's Biscayne Bay Watershed Management Advisory Board to resolve the pollution issue and enhance the water system.

The board recommended the conversion project which is costly but would fix the bay in the long term.

Thanks to the Miami-Dade congressional delegation and lobbyists, the county scored big with the $20 million from the federal government's $1.7 trillion omnibus appropriations bill for the current fiscal year which was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden last month.

Earmarks, also known as “Community Project Funding requests," give members of Congress authority to provide federal support for local projects to enhance community priorities, such as resiliency, transportation, health care, and other economic development projects.

“This is a huge win for Miami-Dade County and a true investment in our local economy. We are grateful for the tireless work of our outstanding congressional delegation,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “Miami-Dade is leading the nation in climate adaptation and resilience innovation. And with these dollars, we’ll work to secure a cleaner, more resilient future for our residents, visitors, and environment.”

The Miami-Dade congressional delegation that went to bat for the county includes U.S. Representatives Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Mario Diaz Balart, Carlos Gimenez, former Miami-Dade County mayor, and Maria Elvira Salazar.

Wilson secured $6,905,944 for septic-to-sewer conversion and canal remediation, Diaz-Balart secured $7,420,000 for septic-to-sewer conversion, stormwater drainage improvement, and affordable housing efforts, Gimenez secured $1,850,000 for septic-to-sewer conversion and Biscayne Bay assessment and monitoring efforts and Salazar secured $4,170,000 for stormwater drainage improvement and mobile computing upgrades for the Miami-Dade police department.

The county suggested the $20 million is a promising sign that additional federal dollars will be pumped into Miami-Dade's pipeline of projects in the future.

But for now, the county can jump start the septic tank to sewer conversion project.

Key Biscayne has worked for years on the septic-to-sewer conversion effort – a project involving true public and private cooperation. The village has worked closely with county leadership, Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department (WASD), and the Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM).

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Raquel Regalado, whose district includes Key Biscayne, confirmed there are 120,000 septic tank properties in the county, and as they have aged – and as sea level rise increases – older tanks are leaching pollution into the groundwater and Bay.

"It’s a significant factor in the die-off of marine plants and animals and many other issues," Regalado told the Islander News.

She said the way the conversion process works is the county specifies a targeted property and mandates the homeowner connect to city sewer. The county’s Connect 2 Project extends sewer service to residents with septic systems.

"The property owner must pay the cost to connect to the line," Regalado said. "That cost varies according to how far away their connections are on the property and other factors. There are some assistance programs for low income property owners."

Improving Biscayne Bay’s water quality will require significant reductions in the levels of pollutants within its watershed. Excess nutrients can lead to excessive algae growth and negatively impact fish, birds, marine mammals, and other marine species’ habitats.

About 9,000 septic systems are vulnerable to compromise or failure under current groundwater conditions and the number increases to approximately 13,500 by 2040.

The first focus for stepped up conversion efforts will be on the approximately 12,000 properties that now have sewer infrastructure available for connection.