Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority has cut back on some of its sewer projects on Big Pine Key because of potential damage to three federally protected species of plants, and possible encroachment on Key deer and marsh rabbit habitat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed land surveys and other habitat information along Key Deer Boulevard, and asked Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority to cut back on trench projects there because of possible damage to three plants -- Big Pine Key partridge pea, wedge spurge and sand flax.
The work is part of the $160 million Cudjoe Regional Wastewater project.
In addition, the proposed project could be impacting the endangered Key deer, Lower Keys marsh rabbit and silver rice rat, according to Fish and Wildlife Service Everglades area supervisor Donald Progulski. Progulski told aqueduct authority officials these three species could be utilizing "habitats on and near the project site for feeding, breeding and sheltering," he wrote in a letter to the local public utility.
"We recommend that you immediately stop any additional disturbance activities that may result in further potential unauthorized take of federally listed species, and obtain the appropriate incidental take authorization as required by the (Endangered Species) Act for any future work that may result in take of federally listed species," Progulski wrote. "Prior to disturbance, we ask that you have the road shoulder areas on Big Pine Key surveyed using a botanist qualified to identify the species. Each plant location should be recorded and the area resurveyed after sewer line installation, providing a report of plant numbers during each survey event to the service."
Keys Refuge Managers Nancy Finley contended that she and other Fish and Wildlife Service officials support central sewer projects in the Keys as they will improve water quality here. Finley seemed optimistic that a resolution will be found, and work will be able to continue in the future, she said.
"We are working closely with Fish and Wildlife on this," aqueduct authority Executive Director Kirk Zuelch said. "It (the project) is going to benefit everyone and all of the species out there when it's complete."
The Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System is the last major sewer project in the Keys. The system will serve 10,000 homes and businesses from Big Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key.
The project has been mired in controversy for more than a year as Lower Keys residents have argued against the use of a lower pressure sewage collection system and the use of grinder pumps. Most recently, residents have charged that the aqueduct authority is not digging deep enough injection wells. The aqueduct authority will shoot the treated wastewater down the injection wells.
Residents have said the depths are not deep enough and the treated water could leak into the water table, or back to the surface and cause harmful algal blooms in nearshore waters. Zuelch said the authority is following state guidelines for injections wells, and that treated sewage water is already being used for irrigation purposes on golf courses and homes in the Keys.
Finley is also concerned about the depths of the injection wells, but she said she is waiting on more information about it from the aqueduct authority before she offers an opinion on the issue.