All Things Sewer

banner-1188502_1280There have been a few sewer-related items in Keys media lately.

First up is the flooding in Key Largo.  The high tides are causing problems with the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District’s (KLWTD) vacuum sewer system.  Crews are working overtime to clear the lines so the system keeps functioning.  A few comments.

  1.  I commend the KLWTD for being proactive and transparent about this issue.  Customers will obviously notice crews working overtime in their neighborhoods.  It makes sense to address the issue head-on.  As we know, not all utilities are willing to do that.
  2. Vacuum systems are great in a lot of ways.  They are cost-effective to build and operate in areas with flat topography and a high water table.  A few large vacuum stations can replace a large number of gravity sewer pump stations, making standby generator power cost-effective.  If there’s a power outage, the vacuum system will keep on running.  But if excessive water enters the system due to flooding, parts of the system can shut down.  The good news is that will limit the excess water that can go to the plant.  The bad news is crews need to get out there and fire the valves to clear the lines and keep the system running.  That’s what they are doing now.
  3. It sounds like there might be some loose/missing clean-out caps in KLWTD’s service area.  Or maybe there are some roof or yard drains tied into the system.  In other words, whatever the problem is it’s probably very fixable.

Second, there are ongoing concerns about Cudjoe Regional.  This was posted on November 1 over at the Coconut Telegraph.

Remember all the FKAA boasting and assurances about how the Advanced Wastewater Reclamation Facility (expensive poop plant) in Cudjoe was going to produce water clean enough to drink and save the Cudjoe Regional service area from the pollution of septic tanks?

Already, with operation at only 1/4 of design, ground water monitoring wells at the plant are showing very high fecal coliforms, with some reported as too high to count!
This would be just the “advance treated” water that rises near the plant from the shallow wells. It is reasonable to expect that most of it comes up further away in open water as it follows the underground tunnels. That’s what our tax money bought and that’s why our FKAA bill tripled. Not much can be done about it now. The public was excluded from all the decision making after 2000, and Cudjoe Regional is a total departure from the Master Plan. I guess I just need a new place to lobster–far from the plant.

Haven’t been able to verify this one, but I’ll see what I can do.  Unfortunately, FKAA’s history of dishonesty – from downplaying Toppino’s conflict of interest to the squirrelly circumstances around Dean’s residency issue – means this could very well be true and we wouldn’t hear about it from the FKAA.  Or even if we did, the problem would simply be waved away rather than addressed honestly.

Also from the Telegraph’s November 1 page…

[Sewers] The Free Press had a couple of front page articles about sewer woes in Islamorada and Key Largo that are another hint of the future here. If this posts Tuesday, you may still find a copy.

In Key Largo, their mostly vacuum system is getting waterlogged due to infiltration from flooded streets with rain and “king tides”. That’s vacuum, but just like grinder pumps, although the system itself is sealed, water still gets in through the cleanout caps and the gasketed openings into the pits. The service people have to manually reestablish vacuum in the mains. It’s a PIA, but way quicker than pumping out grinder pits and you don’t have to get past anyone’s guard dog. The engineering stupidos at FKAA believed the grinder salesman that there is no infiltration in a grinder pump collection system. Right. About the only difference between a grinder and a vacuum pit are one has a pump that needs electricity and the other just has a vacuum valve. The pits are almost identical and take in storm or tide water in the same places for the same reasons. But the collection system here is not designed to accommodate any but an underestimated sewage flow. So it backs up and/or overflows. Alarm horns will be screaming everywhere.

In Islamorada, the sewer system cost skyrocketed and there is talk of possibly raising sewer rates to cover it. Yes, they are already getting a tripled water bill! Properly and equitably, I think the infrastructure sales tax should cover the cost of making it right. Just like here. The way the ILA between MC and FKAA is written, MC pays for the original installation and everything afterward is paid by FKAA with your personal after-tax dollars. Rockridge FL had so many problems with its grinder pump system that they ripped the whole thing out and replaced with vacuum! Rockridge is only about 400 homes, or about the size of Baypoint. FKAA engineers and their engineer buddy at the County told the BOCC in writing that vacuum was not economically feasible for less than 750 homes in a neighborhood/collection basin. And the BOCC bought that B.S. story without having the information confirmed by a competent engineering consultant. I have seen the BOCC resolution approving a few engineering firms available on call, with a big budget allowance approved to pay the bill. There are small marinas that use vacuum sewer collection, so the 750 connections needed is absurd. There is no excuse for the lack of due diligence that has put us in harm’s way.

Again, it’s unclear how effectively the low pressure system (ie. grinder pumps) will work in the Keys.  As mentioned above, low pressure systems are vulnerable to power outages, which occur frequently in the Keys.  There are also questions about the ongoing cost of maintaining these systems.  To make matters worse, the FKAA’s lack of transparency means people are not going to get any straight answers if something does go wrong.  I already linked to secrecy surrounding the issues at the Big Coppitt plant.

Third, Key West Resort Utilities (KWRU) is looking to raise sewer rates.  From the article…

Three of five members of the state’s Public Service Commission and staff came to Key West on Monday to review the case and take public input. They will decide Jan. 26 whether to grant the utility a rate increase that will make the average customer’s bill increase from about $33.29 a month to between $52.66 month and $65.57 a month.

Once again county commissioners Heather Carruthers and Danny Kolhage are talking crap.

They, along with county commissioners Heather Carruthers and Danny Kolhage, made the case that if the KW Resort Utilities can’t keep rates affordable that they should sell the company to a utility with a larger customer base and economy of scale that could keep rates reasonable.

Carruthers spoke in person on Monday, but Kolhage could not make the meeting and had Key West City Commissioner Richard Payne read a letter he had written.

“Maybe we are reaching a point where a small private utility can’t afford to operate,” Carruthers said.

Until very recently, FKAA had some of the highest rates in the Keys.  They lowered them by 15% in September.  Their lower rate is about the same as KWRU’s proposed increase.  Maybe a little more.

Remember that Carruthers and Kolhage were the two commissioners most responsible for recklessly driving up the cost of the Cudjoe Regional project.  Neither of them cared enough to address the enormous funding disparity that unfairly increased the financial burden on Key Largo taxpayers.  For them, the wastewater projects were all about funneling taxpayer money to the FKAA.  I expect this is more of the same.

If Carruthers and Kolhage were truly concerned about affordability, they would support fair and equitable funding throughout the Keys.  But they don’t.  There’s no real concern for the ratepayers in Stock Island or anywhere else.  I’m sure both commissioners know good and well that KWRU’s proposed rate is very similar to the FKAA’s.

Tim O’Hara wrote this one.  I sent him an email asking for clarification on exactly which “utility with a larger customer base” Carruthers and Kolhage are talking about here.

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