FKAA to face more questions on grinder pump issue

By Steve Estes

Officials from the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority can probably expect some pointed questions next week during two community meetings with residents of Big Pine Key concerning the wastewater systems those residents will be receiving in coming months.

After some significant changes in systems last month by the Board of County Commissioners, FKAA drastically scaled back its invitations for a wastewater update meeting next week. Because the BOCC eliminated 1,100 grinder pumps from the system and replaced those properties with gravity pipes, FKAA had to get the contractor to go back to the drawing board and make those changes.

And that caused a stir amongst the folks remaining on Big Pine Key who now face the specter of being one of the remaining 1,600 low-pressure grinder pumps.

FKAA will meet with the Lower Keys Property Owners’ Association Monday night at 7 p.m. At the association’s building on Bogie Road, and then will meet with residents from Big Pine North Region 1 at 7 p.m. Thursday night at Vineyard Christian Church.

The focus of both meetings, however, is anticipated to be the same.

Those homeowners who remain on low-pressure grinder pumps have raised several objections to those plans in recent weeks, objections FKAA officials will undoubtedly hear….twice.

One of the concerns of homeowners still slated for grinder pumps is their reluctance to hand over 10- to 12-foot wide easements on their property to allow the contractors to install the pump pits and equipment, and to allow FKAA personnel to service and monitor the pumps after installation.

Some have suggested that the pumps be placed in the right-of-way rather than on private property and that the needed electrical power be pulled from the electric lines at the street.

It has also been suggested that FKAA install one pump and hook several homes up to the one pump, negating the need for home-supplied electrical power and the easement.

“I will have our engineers research those issues and hope to have answers to them when we meet next week,” said FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch.

There has been some concern that installing cluster systems will change some of the rules under which FKAA operates through the state Public Service Commission, another issue Zuelch says he’ll have researched by staff in the coming days.

“Now that the BOCC has re-drawn the lines, it begs the question where does the line stop. Our designers and engineers put together what we thought was a viable, cost-effective hybrid system and now that’s changed to some extent,” said Zuelch.

He said that right now FKAA officials believe that the redesign of the outer islands system to incorporate the grinder-to-gravity conversions will not add to the completion time for the system.

“We still believe that we can reach the substantial compliance deadline set by the state of December 30, 2015 with these changes, but time will tell,” he said.

More changes might force that completion date into the future.

Florida has mandated that the county install advanced wastewater treatment systems by the end of 2015, but all involved are aware that not all properties will be hooked up to the pipes by the deadline. Officials know there aren’t enough licensed plumbers to make all the connections, particularly since some of the collection pipes won’t be ready to accept effluent until late fall in 2015.

Some residents of the north Big Pine Region 1 basin are also planning to ask what it might cost the county to eliminate more grinder pumps and put gravity in areas where recent changes wer made and the gravity collection pipes run just a few hundred yards from another subdivision.

“When the commission made the decision last month to extend the gravity pipes, they asked us to look for similar ares to those that have been done and estimate a cost for converting to gravity from low pressure,” said Zuelch. “We are working on those estimates now as the redesign proceeds. When we have the estimates, we will present them to the county administrator and county staff and the BOCC can make the decisions they want from there.”

Any conversion from low pressure to gravity will add to the overall construction cost of the system, and the county controls the purse strings for construction costs. FKAA is the contractor oversight and will provide long-term operations and maintenance for the system.

One of the areas that is still in design stage, and may not be completed until “well down the road,” says Zuelch, is No Name Key.

The remote island off the northeast shore of Big Pine Key is considered a cold spot for wastewater service, which means it is not slated for connection to the central system.

“There are several issues we have to look at on No Name Key,” said Zuelch.

First out of the gate is that only 18 of the 43 homes on the island have actually hooked into the commercial power that was built on the island last year and finally cleared for energizing earlier this year. The remaining homes are still on either solar power or generators or a mixture of the two.

Not all of the homes intend to hook into the grid,and ther are some that have smaller solar systems that are fine with the property owners, but also won’t support the electrical power needed to run a grinder pump.

“Right now we have no plans to hook No Name Key into the central system,” said Zuelch. “What we’re trying to do is research systems that will run on the power they have available, or find a way to fit an upgrade of their system into the final cost of the project.”

He said that due to the low density of the island, where homes are fairly well scattered, and the length of the bridge to get to the island, “No Name Key would be an expensive proposition for central pipes.”

He added that the federal Environmental Protection Agency grant FKAA received to fund its on-site program does give it some flexibility in alternative systems to address places like No Name where some of the issues are “different” than what is normal.

“Our engineering staff and the contractor will take a look at No Name and discuss the various options we may have, but that won’t be for some time yet,” said Zuelch.

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