Decades in the Making

Historic project will revamp water distribution through the Florida Keys

Decades in the Making

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Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. That would be the plight of many Florida Keys residents were it not for a 130-mile pipeline connecting their faucets to the Biscayne Aquifer in mainland Florida. In April, the water authority serving the Keys will begin a long-term project to upgrade the vital pipeline.

The Keys are a chain of islands that constitute the southernmost point of the United States. They have a tropical climate similar to Caribbean islands as well as native palm trees and practically no freshwater. The hundreds of thousands of annual visitors to Key West and nearby islands rely on water piped in by the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, which is headquartered in Key West.

Both the authority and the system have been dependable. “We lost water only one time that I remember, after a storm several years ago,” says Greg Veliz.

Veliz is a native of Key West who, except for some college years, has spent his entire life in and around the city. He worked for the city government for 16 years, including as city manager. Two years ago, he moved over to become executive director of the authority. As such, he’s responsible for the overall operation and management of the authority’s potable water and wastewater systems.

Urgent concern

This spring the authority will launch a decades-long modernization of the pipeline. It will involve replacing a 30-inch ductile iron pipeline with a 36-inch steel line that has been cathodically protected. The cathode treatment is a process in which an outer layer of the pipe is sacrificed to corrosion to insulate the core of the pipe against rust, enhancing its longevity.

Veliz says the cathode-treated pipe is a proven technology that ensures the waterline will be durable. “This new technology has a track record and we looked at that record before choosing it.” The steel pipe for the line will be made in the U.S., Veliz says.

The existing pipe’s 50-year life expectancy is nearing its end. That, coupled with some preventive repair work that Veliz says didn’t happen in a timely way, makes replacing the pipeline a fairly urgent concern. “It is what it is and now we must start putting in a new pipe.”

Replacement won’t happen overnight. In fact, incremental pipe work beginning this spring will continue for two or three decades before the makeover of the waterline is complete. The cost? Veliz threw out the sum of a billion dollars but only to make a point: It will be expensive.

What is known for sure is the tab for the first 4-mile increment is $42 million, which will be expended over the next two years. Some $35 million of that comes from state and federal grants, the rest from a low-interest loan. More grants will be sought to help fund future increments of the project.

First phase

The village of Islamorada, situated on six small islands, is the starting point for the project. That segment of the line is showing the effects of what Veliz calls “aggressive soils and subterranean tidal flows. Every single day, twice a day, tide goes in and goes out. The pipe is surrounded by salt and rock, very high salinity, and the shifting substrate affects the pipe.”

In other words, the pipe is being eaten away and pushed around by shifting pressures, both of which threaten its integrity. The executive director says something similar is happening all up and down the line.

For most of its 130 miles, the old pipe is either buried alongside U.S. Route 1 that serves the Keys or is strapped to the underside of the 42 bridges hopping from island to island. This time the new pipe will not piggyback on the bridgework.

Instead, a tunnel will be directionally drilled in the seafloor between each of the islands and the new waterline pulled through it. That placement will better protect the pipe from wind and storm surges. Two bridges in the inaugural Islamorada segment of the project will be bypassed that way.

Fighting traffic

The pipe replacement work will be tricky. Besides the directional drilling, construction crews will have to contend constantly with two challenges. The first is the cluttered ground in which the new pipe will be laid. The highway’s narrow right-of-way is crowded with other utility lines serving island populations.

“All the utilities are sort of laid on top of one another,” Veliz says. “That makes repairing a leak in a pipe in the middle of a night a real challenge because there are four or five other buried lines down there you don’t want to hit.” The same problem will face those laying the new pipe.

The other major challenge is the narrow roadway itself. For most of its length, U.S. Route 1 is a two-lane highway. In construction zones, the southbound lane of the highway will be blocked by heavy equipment and construction personnel.

“Traffic on the highway is, I don’t know, immeasurable,” says Veliz. “The Keys is an incredible economic engine for the state of Florida. This project is going to impact all of that. For years to come, driving the highway at times is going to be uncomfortable.” Veliz is very familiar with the situation, having traveled U.S. 1 for many years. “I feel like I’ve spent half my life on that highway.”

The prime contractor for the first 4 miles of the project is Michels Pipeline, the highly rated Wisconsin firm that has been performing underground infrastructure work for more than 60 years. The Michels work plan is ambitious, according to Veliz.

“The contractor is scheduled to have crews on site 24 hours a day, five days a week, beginning at the south end of the project north of Tea Table Key. The plan is to spend four days laying pipe and the fifth day of each week performing inspections and trench restoration.” Once the pipe is buried in the right of way, it will be tied in to the two directional drilled segments at each end of the project.

There will be necessary interruptions in the construction activity. The local economy demands it. The constant flow of tourists down U.S. 1 to the Keys is a reality that can’t be ignored. The flow is heavy throughout the year, according to Veliz, with Key West’s numerous hotels at 95% capacity on any given day.

“But there are days when blocking traffic on the highway simply cannot happen, on weekends when we can expect to double our population thanks to visitors. Those will be blackout days as far as laying pipe.” Keeping traffic moving will be an ongoing concern as the project proceeds, he says. “This is one reason we’ve authorized extended working hours for the contractor, to reduce the overall project duration and, therefore, reduce the impact on traffic flow.”

Busy as the Florida Keys are, they are getting busier — some 20 million gallons of water are pumped to Key West and adjacent villages each day, an amount that has increased over the last decade. That’s not because Key West’s population is growing, however, as the city’s population of about 75,000 residents is more or less fixed. Not only is there no more land available on which to build houses and apartments, the number of building permits is strictly limited. The cap on building controls growth.

It also assures officials that the population remains a manageable size so it can be evacuated in a timely way when hurricane warnings begin to sound. The pipelines and highway have proven to withstand the storms reasonably well — though one section of the roadway is prone to washing out — but having tens of thousands of people crossing the bridges in hurricane winds would be a whole other matter. 

Safety net

The new waterline will not be fully functioning for many years. The good news is that a new water treatment plant will come online much sooner. The authority has had two reverse osmosis plants operating for years, one on Stock Island, the other at Marathon. However, the plants have become outdated and are vulnerable to hurricane winds.

Consequently, a new desalinization plant is halfbuilt on Stock Island, with completion expected within the next two years. It might have been finished sooner but the supply chain disruptions that hit many industries after the COVID economic shutdown impacted the plant’s construction. A new Marathon plant is still on drawing boards.

Though reverse osmosis is a far more expensive way to produce drinking water than drawing it to the surface from an aquifer, the local water production is important. The plant can serve Key West in an emergency should the flow from the mainland ever be interrupted.

Veliz says the authority’s goal with the plants is “to be able to produce drinking water as far south in the Keys as we can. If we ever experience a break in the pipeline, we can shut off a valve and still serve the area affected by the break. They will have water.”


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