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Reclaimed water system in Palm Beach County

Miami-Dade has a dismal record of conserving water and has done little to prepare for the roughly 100 million-gallon- per-day increase in consumption the county expects over the next 20 years. That's the blunt assessment of state regulators who rejected the county's plan to meet much of that need by tapping deeper into the aquifers. Without state approval, development in Miami-Dade could come to a halt.

Under growth management laws passed by the Legislature last year, counties must show they are meeting projected water demand, in part through conservation and alternative sources such as reverse osmosis or through treated wastewater and groundwater.

Miami-Dade reuses only 7% of its water, compared to 30% in Palm Beach and 100% in Collier, where the county has spent heavily on water recapture and treatment infrastructure.

Outraged by the state's response, county leaders called for (and received) the resignation of Miami-Dade's water and sewer department chief, Bill Brant. In April, the county reached a deal with the South Florida Water Management District allowing for an additional 2 million gallons a day for the next 18 months -- a stopgap measure to accommodate immediate growth projections.

In return, Miami-Dade must meet conservation quotas and begin exploring alternatives to sucking the aquifer, a practice that many feel is a threat to Everglades conservation efforts.

All of that will cost the consumer. Water rates in Miami-Dade -- historically kept low to encourage development -- are among the state's lowest, but they may rise dramatically.

"It's only about money," says Chip Merriam, deputy executive director of water resources at the South Florida Water Management District. "If protecting your water resources is a priority, there are things you can do. But people need to be willing to pay for it."