At Home on Big Coppitt
Susan Degner is one strict lady. “We have a rule at our house as far as showers go. Get wet, shut the water off, soap, then rinse pretty quickly,” she said.
She shares a home on Big Coppitt with her husband, daughter, and 18-month old grandson and talks candidly about only washing full loads of laundry and how to teach a youngster to shut off the water while brushing his baby teeth. He uses a tiny Dixie cup to rinse. Dishes are cleaned through an energy-saving dishwasher, and when dishes are washed by hand, the soapy water goes into her plants’ watering can.
Needless to say, water isn’t wasted.
Our Three Sources of Water
Primary: The Biscayne Aquifer
Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority spokeswoman Colleen Tagle said, “The Biscayne Aquifer is our primary source of water. This source is easy to get to, totally fresh, and refreshing! This water meets and exceeds all state and federal drinking standards when it comes out of the ground. We simply disinfect it, soften it, add fluoride, and then send it down a 130-mile journey through the Keys.”
Secondary: The Upper Floridian Aquifer
FKAA Director Jim Reynolds said, “When demands are high, we turn to brackish water. Through normal osmosis, we balance the concentration of the liquids. We want to take a water of high concentration of salts and make lesser concentration of salts, and the only way to reverse flow is to force pressure through the membrane.”
Emergency: Ocean Water
Two Reverse Osmosis Plants on Stock Island and in Marathon
Roy Coley, FKAA’s Operations Manager said, “The Reverse Osmosis plants we have on Stock Island and in Marathon run 30 percent efficiency on sea water. This is strictly for emergencies if a hurricane, other disaster or disruption affects the pipeline. Due to the cost, we only run on an emergency basis. The ocean water from these RO plants is also available during times of extreme draught.”
At FKAA’s Florida City Treatment Facility
“We’re producing 1.5 million gallons a day, and we’re taking approximately 1.8 million gallons out of the Upper Floridian Aquifer for an 80 percent recovery. That’s pretty darn good,” said FKAA supervisor Rick Zucker. He recently took a group of business leaders in the Keys on a tour of the plant along with Tagle, Coley, and deputy executive director Kerry Shelby.
They have a new reverse osmosis operation to take brackish water from another water source – the Floridian Aquifer – remove the salt, and make the water safe to drink.
“System wise, from here to Key West in one year, your water will be tested over 85,000 times. At every site along the way, at intervals throughout the day, your water is checked for pH, chlorine, and ammonia. Know there is a constant testing process all the time so we are able to detect if anything goes wrong with the water supply; whether its contamination in the well or any other reason, we’re in a constant testing mode to give you confidence the water is safe,” Coley explained.
The water coming from the Floridian Aquifer being treated with reverse osmosis comes from a 1,700 foot well. If people don’t conserve, the FKAA has to turn on the system.
“If we keep usage down to 17-18 million gallons a day,” according to Tagle, “We don’t have to run this. But, if everybody is wasting, we have to turn it on and start running all of this.”
Eighteen million gallons a day is the maximum amount of H20 the FKAA is permitted to pipe from the Biscayne Aquifer. This time of year, we’re averaging 14 million gallons. Since 2001, usage has been trending up slowly three to four percent. In 2001, when the region was stricken with drought, the economy was kickin’, real estate was boomin’, residents were irrigating and there were simply more people inhabiting the islands.
“We exceeded the amount taken out of Biscayne,” Reynolds recalls. “We were told to develop alternative water sources and constructed this brackish water treatment facility.”
The formation of the Upper Floridian Aquifer is similar to Swiss cheese – 100 feet thick, much deeper and located farther north than the Biscayne Aquifer.
A tremendous amount of power is necessary to treat this water. During peak season, 3 million gallons may come from the desalination plant. The facility sits on 100 acres within a 300-acre pine preserve in Dade County. The Navy gave the land to the Aqueduct Authority in 1976. The land must be preserved as a forest assuring there won’t be any development.
Speaking of development, if ROGO (Rate of Growth Ordinance) were to disappear, “all bets are off,” according to Reynolds.
“Our system right now is designed to accommodate restrained growth. With the new desal (desalination plant) we can accommodate all homes and business if they all filled up tomorrow. But, if the county was able to issue hundreds of more building permits, we would need to spend a lot of money to build more infrastructure.”
Calendar events that send droves of tourists to the Keys are already factored in. More water is released to accommodate Fantasy Fest, Powerboat Races, Thanksgiving, Memorial Weekend, Labor Day and during winter when tourism spikes. Consumption ramps up in December and doesn’t back down again until after Easter. Unfortunately, the biggest water demands come during the driest part of the year. Dry season is defined as December 1 – May 1. Cash flow into the FKAA slows to a trickle when the islands are empty.
“We really are set for the next 25 years for water,” Reynolds continued. “We were looking at violating our permit with the South Florida Water Management District until we had the desal plant up and running this January.”
Everglades restoration is underway. The Biscayne Aquifer supplies our wetlands. Draining this water source from excessive use has the potential to change the entire ecological system wildlife need to survive.
Preserving and protecting the Florida Everglades is of utmost importance. Engineers and environmental specialists are also closely monitoring sea levels. The Biscayne Aquifer is extremely vulnerable to a rise in sea levels. The aquifer only sits three feet above sea level. The desalination facility is a hedge against climate change. More desalination plants will have to be constructed if the rising sea level contaminates the freshwater. The technology is there, but this is not a “green” option because the process is energy-intensive.
“This plant is running at 80 percent. This tells you what the technology does from two-decade old technology versus today’s technology,” Coley confirms.
Reynolds says if there is one tactic he would like to see all residents implement in an attempt to conserve, the move would be to halt irrigation and replant with drought-tolerant, native landscaping.
Back on Big Coppitt
Degner, a server at the Eat-N-Grinn at the Deli, is responsible for the lawn at their rental home. She relies on the rain and will use dishwater when necessary to water her lawn, which she’s filled with all tropical plants.
“I just let the rainwater do its job. I have palm trees, china doll plants, birds of paradise. I watered them when I first put them in; then after the first week, we went to every other day and the next week it was every two days until we just weaned watering away completely. The whole side of my house is like a jungle!”
The disinfecting of the water in Florida City takes between 12 and 15 hours. For the water to make the way down the pipeline takes four to five hours to reach Key West.
Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority
• 45, 000 metered connections
• Off-Season: Serves 75,000 permanent residents
• Season: Serves a population of 150,000
Conservation continues at work. “We don’t stick the pitcher of water on the table and assume you’re going to drink the water. If you don’t, then we have to throw it away. You have to ask for it,” says Susan Degner a server with Eat-N-Grinn at the Deli.
The ladies of Leadership Monroe learn about the water. Pictured (l-r) are Monroe County planner Barbara Bauman, Monroe County deputy administrator Debbie Frederick, Island Breeze Realty’s Jo Grego, Raymond James’ Frances Strauss, and comptroller for the Southernmost Hotel Collection, Teresa Ross.
Barry Carter, with FKAA shows us how he can control the amount of water flowing from Florida City to Key West with the click of a mouse! Conducting the tour is FKAA deputy executive director Kerry Shelby. Taking the tour with me is administrator for the Monroe County Health Department Bob Eadie. We’re pictured with FKAA’s marketing expert Colleen Tagle and operation manager Roy Coley.
Carter mans the Keys’ wide water pressure from his desk in Florida City. “You could push one button and rupture the pipeline,” affirms Reynolds on the sensitivity to the control room.
FKAA executive director Jim Reynolds.