Reef Madness

Just east of downtown Delray Beach, a yard-wide pipe runs beneath the beach, dipping under the sandy floor where the Atlantic laps against the shore. About a mile out, 95 feet under water, the other end of the tube opens up. Out of its barnacle-encrusted mouth spews partially treated sewage water generated by the roughly 211,000 souls living in Delray and Boynton Beach.

It's a rollicking submarine carnival down there. The pipe juts upward at a 30-degree angle, and a darkish mix of water and small solids belches out. Fish zip to and fro, churning through the discharge, feeding on its delectable debris. Some of the stuff rises to the top, creating a bubbling mosaic on the surface. But much of it is caught in the exceedingly strong current that's peculiar to that area of the southeast coast.

Although the flow varies with the number of tourists who happen to be staying in the two beach cities at any given time, the pipe dumps about 13 million gallons of partially treated effluent each day, according to municipal records.

Tons of "nutrients" that the pipe spits out each month can at times act as a virtual steroid for algae, which, in amounts too great, smother and kill coral reef. The nitrate-rich liquid is swept north to the nearby Gulf Stream Reef, where it saturates the coral.

This is the third-largest reef in the world, stretching from the Dry Tortugas in the Keys to West Palm Beach. Because of the burgeoning population in South Florida, it's also the most imperiled.

Members of Boynton Beach-based Reef Rescue, a ragtag group of avid local divers, boat owners, and fishermen, will tell you that the most pressing threat facing Gulf Stream Reef is the nasty brew spitting out of that pipe. For years, the Boynton-Delray wastewater treatment plant has flushed water offshore, one of six such plants in the tricounty area that rids itself of wastewater this way. This one is especially close to a stretch of pristine reef, and it's a favorite spot for scuba divers, environmentalists say.

Reef Rescue's director, Ed Tichenor, offers a comparison on the group's website to explain, using a household product, what's happening down there. In December 2003, just more than 77,500 pounds of nitrogen was discharged from the outfall. "According to the directions on the Scott's Turf Builder bag, this amount of fertilizer will treat an area four miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide for a two month period," the Reef Rescue website extrapolates.

This reef is no mere offshore curiosity, of interest only to occasional passing tourists or scuba nuts. The health of Florida's reef is essential to the state's economy, state officials concede. It's big business. Florida's reefs provide 61,000 jobs — everything from selling bait and diving equipment to servicing boats and providing lodging for water enthusiasts — and generate $1.9 billion in annual income for residents of Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties, according to a report prepared for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection earlier this year.

Aside from the economy, healthy coral reefs are vital to sea life. Like the rain forests of terra firma, the coral reefs aid the balance of life in the underwater world. They act as nurseries and pit stops for a vast array of fish, amphibians, and crustaceans. Reefs create a nexus among land, air, and water.

For the past four years, Tichenor has led a tenacious crusade to persuade state regulators to make the Boynton plant stop or drastically reduce dumping into the ocean. It's a campaign for which he's ideally suited. A former environmental scientist in New Jersey, he spent many years monitoring industrial wastewater discharges to establish if they were in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. He worked closely with New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, which — unlike its Florida counterpart, he says — came down on violators like a lion on a wildebeest.

But Tichenor saw a chance for change when the Florida DEP was due to renew the plant's dumping permit in June 2005. At first, the DEP gave him the brushoff, telling him at one point to contact his congressman if he was so interested in protecting the reef. But Tichenor hammered away with the kind of detailed reports and damning data that only a former environmental investigator could produce.

The agency has now asked the plant to demonstrate that its wastewater isn't harming the reef, as required by the Clean Water Act.

"They tried to dismiss us initially," Tichenor says of the Florida DEP, to which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has delegated responsibility for enforcing the Clean Water Act in Florida. "But these are environmental investigation reports that they can't disregard."

Environmental activists are awed by Reef Rescue's success in getting even this far in Florida's laissez faire regulatory milieu. "The DEP," one Tallahassee-based clean-water advocate says with guarded understatement, "is typically very unresponsive."