Engineering may solve Niles pipe crossing CBRS issue

By Steve Estes

Precision engineering may be the answer to a potential snag in reaching Ramrod Key through Big Pine Key with the now-started Cudjoe Regional wastewater system.

The regional system, which will serve the equivalent of 8,800 homes from Lower Sugarloaf Key to Big Pine Key, is based on a single treatment plant at the landfill on Cudjoe Key that will service areas east and west. It is also based on a single transmission main running along US 1 from Big Pine to the plant on Cudjoe.\ and from the plant to Lower Sugarloaf Key.

One of the engineering snags all along for the regional project has been how to traverse Niles Channel between Summerland Key and Ramrod Key.

Original designs called for the transmission main to run inside the bridge alongside an already existing water main.

But the State Department of Transportation has nixed that idea, claiming that the bridge may not withstand the extra weight in its current condition. Many of the bridges along US 1 are approaching, or have exceeded, their useful 50-year life span. Just last year, a piece of the old Niles Channel Bridge broke free and fell into the waters below.

While engineers have no fear that the bridge won’t handle existing weight loads, they are unwilling to add the extra weight of a sewer transmission line to the support structure.

To get around that glitch, the county has authorized an extra $4 million or so to allow the contractor to directional bore under the bridge through the sea bed below for the transmission main.

Last week, officials were told that the waters on both sides of the bridge are part of the Coastal Barrier Resource System, a federal designation that carries extra protections against development, and also county restrictions against running new utilities through the area.

Under the county’s interpretation of its regulations, properties on the east side of Niles Channel would be unable to get building permits due to the prohibition, forcing the county and Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority to either change the prohibition, which appears to be on its way out anyway based on recent conversations by the Board of County Commissioners.

Most properties in the Cudjoe Regional service area will require at a minimum a plumbing permit to hook the lateral from the house drains to the pipe in the street. A large number of properties will require both a plumbing and an electrical permit, the latter for the power panel to be used for the low-pressure grinder pumps that are part of the hybrid gravity system planned for the area.

The county is currently embroiled in a series of legal actions over that CBRS prohibition as it pertains to No Name Key. Just over half of the property owners on No Name petitioned Keys Energy for commercial power, a commodity never before available on the island of 43 homes.

Officials also thought briefly that they might run into a similar situation with the Islamorada wastewater system. That city plans to tap into the Key Largo lines just east of Tavernier Creek. Tavernier Creek is also part of the CBRS areas in the county. According to Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District officials however, all the connections east of Tavernier Creek will be hooked into the Key Largo lines, not the one coming from Islamorada, eliminating the CBRS issue.

And the CBRS designation alongside Niles Channel may also be a moot point for the FKAA whether it decides to continue with the directional bore under the channel or FDOT has a change of heart and allows connection to the bridge.

If the pipes remain on or in the bridge, the CBRS doesn’t come into play at all since the federal legislation that established the CBRS areas “cut out” the rights of way along US 1, says Christine Hurley, county growth management director.

The expenditure of federal dollars in CBRS areas is prohibited which may also be a moot point for the Nile Channel crossing since the Cudjoe Regional is being paid for by user assessments, state grants, and future proceeds from the newly extended one-cent infrastructure sales tax in the county.

In cutting out the rights-of-way along US 1, said Hurley, the CBRS also doesn’t cover the water or sea bed directly below the bridges inside the established rights-of-way.

“As long as the contractor remains inside the established rights-of-way while crossing the channel, we have no issue with going through a CBRS area,” said Hurley. “Our current prohibition against issuing permits for new utility hook ups will not come into play.”

The contractor for the outer islands Cudjoe Regional system is expected to present their design guidelines next week. It is not known at this time where the company plans to place the directional bore. The outer islands consist of Lower Sugarloaf Key and Ramrod through Big Pine Key.

That pipe under Niles Channel will join to the inner island system on the east end of Summerland Key. A different contractor is installing the inner island system. That portion of the system has already been designed.

Groundbreaking for the entire Cudjoe Regional project was last week. Contractors building the treatment plant are already on site at the Cudjoe Key transfer station on Blimp Road.

The remainder are expected to begin this month.

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