Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
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Gravity demand weighs heavy on county, FKAA

BIG PINE KEY -- It was a year of both progress and conflict for the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater Treatment System. Meanwhile, 2013 brought bad news and a call for action related to Big Pine Key's beloved Key deer.

Work on what was then to be the $150 million Cudjoe treatment system began in January. With the 2015 state mandate for completion of the 8,800-home project looming, progress has been significant, according to the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, which designed the system at the county's behest.

So far, the contractors Layne and Giannetti have laid 33 miles of pipe covering portions of Cudjoe, Lower Sugarloaf and Little Torch keys, according to FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch. That amounts to 15 percent of the project's total pipe.

The contractor Wharton-Smith has also completed approximately 30 percent of the work on Cudjoe's Blimp Road plant.

Progress aside, the Cudjoe system generated conflict throughout 2013. Central to the dispute were plans by FKAA to connect up to 2,800 homes, many of them in densely populated areas, to a low-pressure grinder-pump system.

The FKAA said use of the grinder pumps would save $30 million in construction costs compared with putting in a full gravity sewer system. But homeowners chafed that grinder pumps are a maintenance hassle, and that they can be expected to need replacement after a decade.

The argument heated up in June after Cudjoe resident Walter Drabinski and his company, Vantage Energy Consulting, produced an analysis concluding that maintenance costs would actually make the grinder pump option $30 million more costly than a system with more gravity hookups over the life of the project. Drabinski called for about two-thirds of the planned low-pressure hook-ups to instead be put on a gravity line.

For a while, neither the Monroe County Commission nor the FKAA flinched. But things changed after Drabinski asked the court for an injunction in September to halt the sewer project. In October, the county commission decided to add another 1,150 properties to the gravity line. The move increased the price of sewer construction by $10 million.

However, as 2013 winds down, the debate is far from settled. Just this month, residents on Big Pine, Ramrod and Cudjoe keys joined forces in an effort to get another 800 properties re-engineered as gravity connections. The county commission plans to discuss the matter in January.

The conflict has taken more than just a financial toll. Piping work on Big Pine has been slowed due to the changes in the sewer design, Zuelch acknowledges.

Meanwhile, a separate decision to add road repaving to the sewer project left the price of the Cudjoe regional system at approximately $170 million at year's end.

It was mortality, not money, which brought concern to advocates of the endangered Key deer this year. The bad news came in October, when a statistical analysis revealed that the diminutive denizen sustained more deaths in 2012 than any year since mortality counts began in 1996.

A hefty 197 Key deer died last year, up from 112 as recently as 2007. Automobiles were the main killer, according to National Key Deer Refuge Manager Nancy Finley. But disease also presented a troubling trend. For most of the past 40 years, disease accounted for an average of 2 percent of Key deer death. But that number increased to 5 percent over the past decade. In 2012, 9 percent of the deaths in Big Pine and No Name keys were related to disease.

The increase in mortalities has prompted the beginnings of action. This month, researchers from Penn State University and the refuge announced that they are assembling a stakeholder group that will examine how to better manage the species.

Representatives from Monroe County government, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Key Deer Protection Alliance will be among the stakeholders. Key deer experts from North Carolina State and Texas A&M universities will also participate.

Three workshops are to be held between January and March.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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