FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (SBG) —All across the nation, aging pipes and sewage systems are responsible for spilling hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic waste into our rivers, streams and lakes every year. Experts say time is running out to address what's being called the poisoning of America's waterways.
Surrounded by ocean, and featuring a landscape dotted with lakes, rivers, and canals, the state of Florida is defined by its beautiful water. The state's canals are home to a $40 billion industry of recreation, commerce and seafood, and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is a central part of the state's economy. But a closer look at the water reveals a shocking truth.
Inside Your World Investigates discovered tons of floating garbage, marine life poisoned by toxic chemicals, and hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage wreaking havoc on the waterways.
Jeff Maggio, a fishing guide in Fort Lauderdale, spends 9 hours on the water every day. He's grown frustrated with the condition of the water. "These rocks used to be loaded with mollusks, crustaceans," he told us. "Look at it. It's just dead black slime."
"You'd think you're in a third world, but people swim in it, people boat in it, and say nothing," fishing guide Jeff Maggio told us.
According to Maggio, frequent sewage line ruptures in the area spill into stormwater drains, which empty directly into the canal. Some wastewater systems are still using baked-clay pipes, a century old technology prone to leaks and failures.
Adding to the problem, the Sunshine State is experiencing explosive growth in population, with one estimate saying 900 people are moving there every day. That's putting additional strain on already outdated wastewater systems.
According to Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, more than one billion gallons of sewage have been spilled statewide in the past five years. According to local reports, in a 3-month period, more than 230 million gallons of sewage flowed into rivers and waterways in Fort Lauderdale alone.
It turns out pipe ruptures are a common problem not just in Florida, but across the country. In 2019, an Austin, Texas wastewater main break spilled more than 100,000 gallons of sewage into a popular creek. In South Carolina, state officials reported more than 500,000 gallons of raw sewage was spilled in November alone. According to one estimate, we found 860 billion gallons of untreated sewage are leaking into US waterways every year.
Part of the problem is some of our wastewater pipes and systems are from the 1880s and in desperate need of repair, according to Maria Lehman with the American Society of Civil Engineers. Just this spring, her organization released new ratings for the nation's drinking water and wastewater systems, giving them a C- and D+ respectively. According to the report, only 37% of the nation's total water infrastructure funding needs were met in 2019, and more than $400 billion will be required in the coming years to address the need for upgrades.
"Public health is at risk," Maria Lehman with the American Society of Civil Engineers told us. "It's about new, emerging contaminants. There's a whole suite of things."
According to Lehman, there's not a one-size-fits-all solution, but every state with aging infrastructure needs to urgently examine the problem.
Back in Florida, experts say even citizens bear some personal responsibility, as lawn chemicals and fertilizers seep into canals and harm the water's fragile ecosystem. State water resource expert Dr. Lisa Krimsky says understanding that is a key to fixing it. "Everyday activities and actions really do have an impact," Krimsky told us. "A watershed is not just what happens in your backyard, it really is a much larger geographic space of which we all play a role."
Dr. Krimsky says we have to be patient and remember that restoring a water body is a long-term effort. Experts say that effort and funding are long overdue, not just in South Florida, but across the country.
To read the full report card from The American Society of Civil Engineers, click here.