Worst of the worst?
Big Pine canals may qualify for that dubious distinction

By Steve Estes

Once county officials settle on what five canals they plan to use $5 million on for test projects in what is estimated to be a $300 million overall project, most of the test canals will probably be from Big Pine Key.

“At least four of the five worst canals in terms of water quality are all on Big Pine Key,” said County Mayor George Neugent, whose District Two encompasses Big Pine.

County consultants recently completed the initial fact-finding phase of the canal restoration project by visiting each of the island chain’s 502 canal systems.

The ultimate goal was to get down to the five worst canals that fit inside the Board of County Commissioner’s $5 million initial budget.

Once canals outside the legislative jurisdiction of unincorporated Monroe were weeded out, that left just 332 canal systems to consider, said Rhonda Haag, county sustainability coordinator and in-house director for the project. The consultants also considered no plugged canals because they don’t feed into the near shore waters.

The consultant further refined the list by eliminating any system that was estimated to cost more than $1.5 million for restoration and it had to fall into the category of poor water quality based on testing. That left 131 systems.

Haag said the project is looking at canals where water quality can possibly be restored using one of five different technologies, preferably each one using a different method so they can be evaluated for effectiveness over the long term.

She said that the study isn’t looking at the use of aerators right now, but is considering canals that need either dredging, weed gates/air curtains, culverts, pumps or backfilling to enhance water quality.

Canal restoration is the next step in the BOCC’s efforts to enhance near shore water quality. The first step was the development of central wastewater systems to replace old, leaky septic systems that leached pollutants into the limestone base of the island chain and eventually into the near shore water.

With officials believing that the wastewater system is funded and will be completed reasonably close to the state’s December 21015 deadline, they have turned their attention to residential canals that flush millions of gallons of low-quality water into the near shore waters routinely.

The problems with canal water quality began almost at inception. During the building booms of the 1960s and 1970s developers bought large tracts of land, platted it for subdivisions and proceeded to dig canals to supply fill and open up pathways to the open water to make the land more attractive to buyers.

Many of those original canals were dug several feet, and in some cases tens of feet deeper than the receiving waters, creating a situation where the canals wouldn’t properly flush with the changing tides, leaving behind bad water.

As more and more homes were built on the banks of those already too-deep canals, humans began adding their particular brands of pollutants to the waters,and after a couple of decades, septic tanks didn’t work as well as they did new and wastewater began leaching into the canals, further exacerbating the problem.

She said the final selections will be based on whether the restoration process has a good chance of actually doing what is intended, the cost and whether they can get a commitment from local homeowners or associations to keep the project rolling after the monitoring period ends among other lesser factors.

Originally the consultants had asked that property owners along the canals buy off on covering actual operation and maintenance costs of the particular technology chosen if necessary, but the BOCC nixed that idea, opining that more affluent subdivisions might get the first crack when their canals weren’t necessarily those that need it most.

County Attorney Bob Shillinger also said that by waiting until contracts could be obtained from homeowners, the process might be delayed by six months or more and the deadline to spend the grant money might run out.

Commissioners also suggested that property owners along any canals chosen for the pilot project, as well as those done later if money comes available, should at least furnish operation and maintenance costs after the pilot is complete.

Haag said that the county should maintain control of the project for at least three years to monitor the effectiveness of the various technologies.

Haag said that the public is supportive of the project, but they are unsure of the effectiveness of the various technologies and don’t want homeowner cost share to be a criteria for which canals get done first—the worst then the best.

She said that there are about 170 canal systems in unincorporated Monroe that already have good water quality and may not need any restoration.

The canal restoration advisory group, of which Neugent is a member, is expected to have its final five recommendations ready to go no later than the October BOCC meeting.

“I’m OK with spending money on Big Pine canals first if they’re the worst ones,” said District Five Commissioner Sylvia Murphy. “There’s one of the potential top five in Key Largo so this district will get a chance to see the process in action. That’s important to keep property owner buy-in for the duration of the project.”

The commission discussed how to eventually finance the restoration projects. The BOCC approved the $5 million from eventual infrastructure sales tax monies and is looking at some $30 million in hoped for BP Oil settlement money to do more.

Financing the ongoing maintenance will also be an issue, said Commissioner Heather Carruthers.

The county could finance both the project and the ongoing maintenance from infrastructure sales tax monies, although the newest extension only goes out to 2032.

Commissioner Danny Kolhage wasn’t too receptive to the idea of establishing a series of special taxing districts to cover costs beyond the initial restoration.

“Tracking dozens of small MSTUs would become an accounting nightmare,” he said.

The MSTU was one of the ideas put forward for O&M funding, the other being contracts with adjacent property owners to fund the ongoing O&M costs.

The advisory group is also expected to hone ideas for ongoing O&M costs and bring that back to the commission at a future date.

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