Big Pine canals top list of worstBy Steve Estes
Three of the five worst canals for water quality in Monroe County are located on Big Pine Key and all are the top candidates in their respective categories for a pilot project designed to change that status.
The Monroe Board of County Commissioners has agreed to proceed with a pilot project to clear up poor water quality in residential canals, the next step in an overall program to enhance near shore water quality. The first step was the development of county-wide central wastewater systems. The last of those, the Cudjoe Regional, is already under construction.
Scientists have reported for more than a decade that the coral reef that borders the Keys has been deteriorating, partly due to increasing water temperatures and partly due to pollutants making their way to the reef.
The reef is called by many the economic lifeblood of the Keys.
The wastewater projects are supposed to trap pollutants that before might leach into near shore waters from faulty septic systems. The canal restoration projects are designed to improve water quality in the canals, canals which eventually feed into the near shore waters. And then eventually find a way to the reef tract.
A BOCC-appointed committee last week met to rank the canals in the Keys based on lack of water quality and technology that could be used to improve that poor water quality.
The county is looking at five different technologies, but the budget right now can’t exceed $5 million. That leaves out large, very poor or very deep canal systems as the price tag would exceed the approved spending limits.
So what the committee came up with is a series of shorter canal systems where the technology can be implemented and monitored for three years. County officials hope that by allocating $5 million from future infrastructure sales tax monies, it can convince authorities to invest another $30 million in follow-on money to tackle more canal systems from the pot Florida hopes to receive from the BP Oil Deepwater Horizon settlement package.
One of the technologies planned for use is the installation of weed barriers at the canals entrance. By eliminating some sea weed, officials hope that water quality will improve. The canal system rated highest for that test project is in Doctor’s Arm Subdivision on Big Pine Key, specifically the canals between Witters and Bailey Lanes.
The top four rated canals in this category were all on Big Pine, with the other three part of the Avenues area.
That particular canal also ranked first among systems for another technology, that of organic removal, but the committee instead is recommending that the canal between Avenue I and Avenue J in Sands Subdivision be used instead. Organic removal will consist primarily of clearing the canal of debris and dredging the muck from the bottom.
The former two technologies are designed to increase oxygen levels in the canals and allow natural processes to enhance the water quality and clarity.
Another technology planned is to install culverts between canals to promote tidal flush. One of the primary reasons for poor water quality in Monroe County canals is that many of them were dredged too deeply initially to provide fill to extend the subdivisions. Others were cut into T shapes where the water flows only through the primary outlet and not as well through the secondary canals in the system. Officials plan to install culverts in the Boca Chica Ocean Shores Subdivision canals between Boca Chica Road and Jay Lane.
Adding pumps to the canal system to artificially produce water flow is the fourth technology planned for the pilot projects and the top rated canal in that category is Big Pine’s Whispering Pines Subdivision between Sands Road and Hibiscus Drive. The next rated canal in that category isIn Eden Pines Subdivision along Pine Avenue.
The fifth technology proposed is to backfill existing canals to decreases the water depth and aid in tidal flushing. Canal depth, while a problem in many canal systems throughout the Keys, seems to be a particular problem in the Key Largo area so the top-rated system for that technology is in Sexton Cove Estates between Bunting and Pigeon Drives.
The BOCC is expected to approve the five canal systems to be used in the pilot projects at its coming October meeting, with the projects set to be completed sometime in the spring.
Monitoring will continue for three years with the county picking up the tab on operation and maintenance costs for those strategies requiring such.
Those canals with installed weed barriers will require maintenance, as will the culverts. The canals chosen for pumps will have minimal costs in electric service and maintenance.
Once the three-year monitoring process is complete, the county hopes to hand over maintenance and operational costs to the various homeowners associations, but will work on those agreements after the start of the pilot projects.
“This is a program that is long overdue in the Keys,” said County Mayor George Neugent. “We know that poor canal water quality is contributing to our near shore water problems, but this is an expensive undertaking. We hope we can get some outside money to help us with this.”
County officials have also discussed ways to get out from under the ongoing maintenance costs for canals where pumps and weed gates are installed but haven’t yet figured out the mechanism for that.
“It’s not really fair down the road for us to ask non-waterfront properties to pay to enhance canal water quality when their property values won’t really be affected by the effort. But there is also the thought that enhanced near shore water quality is good for everyone in the Keys,” said Commissioner Sylvia Murphy.
If the various homeowners groups, if the area even has one, won’t step up for ongoing operational and maintenance costs, county officials have discussed the possibility of a special Municipal Services Taxing District for those waterfront areas where canal enhancement projects are installed to defray the cost from county general fund coffers.
“Let’s see if this works, what works, and then we’ll have the conversation on how to pay for it going forward,” said Murphy.