Guest Column: Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System, a Solution?


For almost a year and a half, I have been arguing that the planned, pressurized wastewater system, using grinder pumps, that is proposed for the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System (CRWS) is uneconomic, unreliable, a burden on homeowners, and a potential environmental nightmare.  Now we learn that the shallow injection well design (120’ deep well) at the treatment plant may be an environmental disaster as well and is probably illegal, if the DEP actually enforces its own regulations.  How did we get to the point; where we are willing to install a system in the fragile environment of the Florida Keys, which may be worse than the septic systems we have now?  The answer is MONEY!!   In the 2006-11 timeframe, when the County and FKAA were being forced by the State and the EPA  to move forward with a sewer system, there were no State funds, the 1% infrastructure tax was to expire in 2018, and estimates for a system serving about 9,000 homes was well over $ 200 million.

What has happened since then?  First, on a technical side, we have learned that the Pressurized System (PS) that is proposed may be the worst environmental option one could choose.  It ranks below just about everything but old septic systems and cess pits.  Why?  Because the FKAA will install hundreds of miles of pressurized plastic pipe underground, with no way of monitoring leaks, and a 100% certainty that leaks will occur and pollute our near shore waters.  We have also learned that after power outages and high load conditions, the starting pressures of a pressurized system can exceed the design and test limits, causing fittings to rupture and sewage to backup into homes.  This is not speculation, it has happened in other systems.

Second, we now know, with certainty, that a Pressurized System has a much higher long term cost than almost any other system.  PS only has a lifespan of 25 years as opposed to a gravity system which can last 60-100 years.   Regular maintenance, generator backups, pump replacements, remote monitoring, flushing requirements and the failure of the many moving parts lead to a maintenance nightmare for homeowners and huge long term cost for all Monroe County citizens since the sewer rates are Countywide.  The grinder pumps selected may not meet all state regulations regarding explosion proof motors and appear to have been approved by the DEP based on a very liberal interpretation of some non-applicable exceptions.

A review of the sewage flow calculations from homes to the treatment plant on Cudjoe Key appear to have used low estimates of flow per home and do not take into account the expected buildout over the next decade.  Why is this important?  First, as the flow requirements increase during peak periods or after power outages, the operating pressures go up significantly, leading to increased failures.  More importantly, the increased design flow means that the proposed shallow injection wells cannot be permitted.  Instead, injection wells of over 2,000 feet must be drilled.  Consider where one to two million gallons of partially treated water will go when it is injected into porous limestone only 120 feet deep.  Independent scientists predict decreased water quality, algae blooms, and a general deterioration in water quality in the Cudjoe Key, Sugarloaf Key and Summerland Key areas.

Finally, there is the legal issue of equality.  Simply stated, the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners decided to convert some subdivisions from grinder to gravity with no real rationale.  The Commissioners simply drew a line on a spread sheet and pronounced the ones below a certain cost to be gravity and those above to be a pressure system.  What was the basis for this decision?  What analysis was done?  Was there a lifecycle study?  Were there other subdivisions not on the list that were below the line?  The decision was made on the fly, by five Commissioners, at a monthly meeting, with no analytical support.  We know there is a section of Lower Sugarloaf that has a lower estimated conversion cost but was not on the spreadsheet and therefore ignored.  No lifecycle analysis has been conducted since 2009 to get the real cost of these systems.  That is interesting since when the bids came in the cost of gravity components were about 29% lower than estimated while the low pressure system was 9% lower.  Further, the LifeCycle analysis performed by Matthews consulting assumed every system has a life of only 20 years.  Without considering different life’s for different systems it was worthless.

What is the solution and how is it paid for?  It has taken me 18 months, the review of thousands of pages of regulations, design documents and construction contracts, input from other engineers, scientists and economists, as well as hours of financial and engineering analysis to reach this point.  Here is the blunt answer:

  1. Get rid of all grinder pumps on individual properties.  About 1,200 of the remaining 1,500 planned grinder pumps are in subdivisions and can be converted to gravity.  The FKAA has stated that they can do it if the BOCC approves the incremental cost of $ 18 million.
  2. Install Septic Tank Effluent Pump (STEP) systems on the remaining 300 properties.  These cost about $ 20,000 per home, of which the homeowner has already contributed $ 4,500 and a bonus is that the EPA pays for 75% of the cost, meaning that the cost of these remote locations will be minimal and reduce the overall cost.
  3. Redesign the lift stations so that they comply with State and Federal code.  Select explosion proof motors that will work within the system. Since there will be no individual grinder pumps, a uniform design can be selected that meets the pressure and flow requirements.  Install Telemetry equipment which will verify flows leaving the lift with those aggregated at the main header or booster pumps.  This will minimize unidentified leaks.
  4. Abandon the shallow injection well at the treatment plant  and install deep injection wells the system requires and our environment deserves.
  5. Minimize the use of temporary injection wells on Big Pine in order to reduce the degradation of the freshwater lens.  This is done by installing gravity lines in wet trenches and by dissipating fresh water pumped from trenches on or near the surface so it returns t the fresh water lens.What will this cost and where does the money come from?
Action Cost per unit

Estimated Total Cost

Conversion of 1,200 grinder pumps to gravity $ 15,000 per unit

$ 18 mil

Convert 300 grinder pumps to STEP Save $ 7,000 per unit

-$ 2.1 mil

Replace 120’ shallow well with  2,000’ deep injection well  Estimate $ 5 -8 mil

$ 8 mil

Total up front construction cost

 Approx $ 25 mil

Where does this money come from?  As I stated earlier, in 2011 there were no secure funds.  Now we have about millions from the state (part of $ 50 mil in 2012 and 2014 awards), an extension of the infrastructure tax that will generate $ 13 million per year in unincorporated Monroe County or almost $ 200 million from 2018 through 2033.  This money can be monetized into bonds.  What will the total cost of a proper system be?  It was estimated to be $ 192 million in May 2012 when the County presented its plan, as required by the DEP.  Based on present commitments, it will now be near that level.

Is the cost to the County really $ 25 million more?  No!  That is the upfront cost only.  A properly performed lifecycle analysis shows that pressurized grinder pump system costs twice as much per home as gravity.  Second, as the system grows, with Little Palm, and general build-out of the lower keys, the 1 MGD inflow will require deeper wells at some point.  So it’s pay now for a proper system or later for a substandard one.

In conclusion, with the plan I propose, the citizens and rate payers in Monroe County get an effective, efficient, reliable and environmentally superior system for a reasonable cost that is paid for out of money that was originally targeted for this very purpose.

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  3 Responses to “Guest Column: Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System, a Solution?”

  1. Well said. An investigation into corruption is long overdue. The CRWS was supposed to be about protecting nearshore waters and instead has turned into a disaster waiting to happen. Putting a sewage treatment plant in a landfill where polluted leachate bleeds into Outstanding FL Waters after rainstorms should have deemed a fatal flaw. Instead, it’s the preferred location, a perfect place dig bore holes (injection wells) to make the problem worse. Where the heck has NOAA been hiding on this issue?????

    • During a NOAA meeting in the Marathon Government Center last fall, I tried to get NOAA interested in Cudjoe Regional. They didn’t seem in the least interested. The meeting seemed co-chaired by Billy Causey, Regional Director of NOAA and the South Florida District Director of Florida Department of Environmental Protection, whose name now escapes me. I also tried to get them interested in the chemical runoff coming off of South Florida into Florida Bay, then making its way down to the Keys and killing the reef even further. Causey vigorously shook his head, NO. Later, I attended a meeting hosted by Last Stand and Everglades Law Center at NOAA in Key West, and Billy Causey put forth what appeared to me to be really bad science. I had an intense conversation with Billy right after that meeting ended, and later by email, which caused me to give up on NOAA.

  2. I came to view this situation in a simple-minded way. When Walt Drabinski told Monroe County, no way to grinder pumps where he lived, and he filed a lawsuit to back up his words, the County Commission converted to using gravity lines wherever feasible in Walt’s locale, Lower Sugarloaf Key. If, as the County Commission, let principally by County Commissioner George Neugent, a self-proclaimed pump expert, had truly believed, as George, and the county’s engineer, Kevin Wilson, who’d never had prior experience with installing sewer systems, kept saying; if the grinder pump systems where cheaper than and as environmentally sound as gravity sewer systems, then what the County Commission would have done was convert Walt’s Lower Sugarloaf Key area entirely to grinder pumps, and the County Commission, so illuminated, then would have converted the rest of Cudjoe Regional Sewer System to grinder pumps. The only gravity lines probably would have been the sewer mains on US 1. If you saw some of the emails George wrote to lower Keys home owners, who had written to him about their concerns with grinder pumps, you would have wondered if George had lost his mind, or his soul. Cudjoe Regional lies in his voting district. He is their county commissioner. He is running for reelection this year, after saying when he ran in 2010, that he would not run again, if he was reelected His campaign slogan in 2010 was “Promises Made, Promises Kept.” George beat Danny Coll in the Republican primary, then he beat me, an Independent, in the general election. Danny is running against George again, this year. Danny doesn’t like grinder pumps. He told me so himself. He invited me to speak at his Rotary Club on Big Pine Key about grinder pumps. I did that, having no dog in the fight, since I lived in Key West and had sold my place on Little Torch Key last August. I told the Rotary that grinder pumps in this locale, a saltwater table, Hurricane Wilma-ish tidal surges and power outages, which knock out grinder pumps; grinder pump pressure line leaks, which cannot be detected, thus cannot be repaired; all was a disaster waiting to happen. The entire point of Tallahassee requiring the Keys to be taken off of septic systems and cess pits was to protect the land and the water and the reef from further sewer pollution degradation. That’s what the money Tallahassee gave to Monroe County to sewer the Keys was for. That’s what the infrastructure sales tax was for. To protect the Keys fragile environment. The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection aligned with Monroe County, knowing grinder pumps were the least desired way to sewer the Keys. All three agencies became masters of spin, deception, and outright lying, which forced Dump the Pumps to go the legal route, as Walt Drabinski had done before. Alas, instead of giving Dump the Pumps what they had given Walt Drabinski’s locale, the County Commission ignored what they had given Walt’s locale. Kevin Wilson said at an FKAA meeting in Key West, that it would be unconscionable not to allow the County Commission to spend the infrastructure tax on other things than sewering the Keys, because the Cudjoe Regional Sewer System already was fully funded by the infrastructure tax. It was a robust sewers system, Kevin told the FKAA Board of Directors, whom Governor Scott had appointed. Bob Dean, Chairman of the Board, then looked right past Kevin, to the packed audience of lower Keys residents, and said, “FKAA prefers gravity and will install it if the County Commission provides the funding.” Then, instead of telling FKAA to stop installing the inferior grinder pump system and to wait on the County Commission to fund gravity systems wherever feasible, which I had asked during citizen comments that the Board do, the Board and FKAA allowed the contractor it had hired to do Cudjoe Regional, to continue installing grinder pumps. Then, FKAA was spinning, deceiving and outright lying even more, even as Dump the Pumps showed them and DEP the permits issued by DEP did not meet DEP’s own requirements, it is alleged in Dump the Pumps/ legal action. When something gets this screwed up, when something makes no sense, I figure it’s rigged in some way; somebody’s getting paid off. The devil is in getting to the bottom of it.