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CBS4 Investigates: Miami’s Pipes Going Down The Drain

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MIAMI (CBSMiami.com) – Again and again, we hear of a water main break or sewage problem somewhere in South Florida.

CBS4 Investigator Stephen Stock discovered the cause behind all these problems is an aging system of pipes that will take more than $1,000,000,000 to fix.

It seems like every week that South Florida residents have to deal with a water main break or a broken sewer line.

Tracking these breaks during the last six months CBS4 Investigates discovered an average of two breaks a week in either a sewer or water line somewhere in South Florida.

“This is basically a race against time,” said Vincente Arrebola, assistant Director of Wastewater Systems for Miami-Dade County’s Water and Sewer Department.

Arrebola and his teams are in charge of trying to stop sewer line breaks before they happen in Miami-Dade County.

When a sewer line breaks such as the break in Hollywood Wednesday, “it tends to be a catastrophic event,” said Arrebola. “It affects a large number of people and has some very significant impacts” both on human health and safety and the environment.

These large sewer breaks “affect a large number of people and have some very significant impacts,” said Arrebola.

CBS4 Investigates discovered that out of 13,000 miles of water and sewer pipes located in Miami-Dade County more than half are more than fifty-years-old and in need of repair or replacing.

Fifty years may not sound old, but experts say because of South Florida’s salt water and environment almost all of that aging, cracking, eroding and crumbling pipe needs to be replaced.

Soon.

Or experts told us that we’ll see even more scenes of gushing raw sewage in South Florida streets more often.

“It’s that old familiar saying, ‘you pay me now, or you pay me later,’” said Doug Yoder Deputy Director of Miami-Dade’s Water and Sewer Department. “And the chances are if you pay me later you’re going to pay a lot more.”

Yoder compares trying to keep up with this aging infrastructure to playing “whack a mole.”

Yoder said it can cost 10 times more to fix a broken pipe than to repair or replace the same length of pipe if the wrong systems break.

“There’s a concern with of course the really large diameter pipes,” said Yoder. “We have pipes as large as 12-feet in diameter. So that if they fail it could create a really serious problem.”

Juan Bedoya’s crew is one of ten different sewer system leak crews playing “whack a mole” throughout Miami-Dade.

They drop remote video cameras into manholes and down into sewers. They watch for signs of leaking water on remote monitors inside mobile trucks as they try to catch sewer line breaks before they happen.

But right now, they admit that they’re fighting an uphill battle.

“Twenty-five to thirty percent of the (sewer) lines (in Miami-Dade) probably need some form of repair or rehabilitation,” said Wastewater’s Vincente Arrebola. “Or in some cases (they are in need of) replacement. They (the public) only seem to notice when we have a break.”

Then there are 16 different crews like Sergio Rivas’.

These crews spend their days combing the entire county using monitoring devices to listen for rushing, leaking fresh water that otherwise would go unseen.

“We lose 100’s of millions of gallons of water (a year) as a result of leaks,” said Doug Yoder.

“We just can hardly keep up with it,” said Rafael “Ralph” Terrero, assistant director of Miami-Dade’s fresh water systems operations.

Terrero’s freshwater leak teams find about 150 leaks a month.

“And at the same time, we have another 150 breaks that are not really detected until they blow out,” Terrero said. “You know, out of sight, you know, out of mind.”

And when the freshwater leak detection teams do find the leaks the backlog of their cases is so large that it can take another five to six months before another crew can get out into the field and fix them.

CBS4 Investigates obtained a map of some of oldest and most vulnerable pipes in Miami-Dade and found some of the most problematic are sewer pipes carrying waste along Biscayne Bay as well as fresh water pipes, some approaching 100 years in age, which currently supply Miami’s newest high rises and real estate projects, such as the proposed Genting Casino.

“We fear the day when we lose a large diameter water and sewer main where we may not have the additional pipes so we can work around it, and keep everybody supplied and in business,” said Yoder.

The solution?

Yoder said it will take more money including higher water rates. Because even at the current pace or repairs it will take twenty years and $1,000,000,000 to fix Miami-Dade’s system alone.

In Broward County the problem isn’t nearly as extensive as Miami-Dade.

While there are 27 different systems run by various municipalities in Broward County, the oldest pipes only make up about 2% of the entire system. Most of those older pipes are located in the Pompano Beach area.

In Fort Lauderdale, which has its own independent system, similarly about 2% of their pipes are 50 years old or older and in need of attention, repair or replacement.

Some of the other 27 different systems in Broward are run by such small municipalities that there is little or no money to fix or maintain those systems.

Broward County officials told CBS4 Investigates they expect to replace or rehabilitate all their old pipes within next five years.

In the Florida Keys about 150 miles of pipeline is forty years old or older. About 60 miles of this pipe was put in by the Navy around World War II. Experts told us it will take at least thirteen years and $40 million to replace all their aging pipes.

In every community the estimated costs to repair, rehabilitate or replace this entire aging infrastructure assumes one thing: that no other pipes or crisis breaks first.

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