The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority’s board convened Wednesday to consider borrowing money to fund $50 million worth of projects, including a $38 million upgrade of its reverse osmosis plant on Stock Island.
The reverse osmosis, or desalination, plant is essentially a fail-safe the FKAA maintains to serve as an emergency water supply if the main transmission pipeline from the Florida City water plant is out of service. There is a second emergency treatment facility in Marathon.
Instead of voting to approve a loan or bonding, the board will instead turn to state Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo) to try to get the state to fund all or part of the project through a continuation of the Florida Keys Stewardship Act or some other state funding mechanism.
If the board had approved the borrowing, Monroe County ratepayers would have had to foot the bill, a hike the FKAA predicted would amount to a 5 percent rate increase for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
The prospect of a fairly sizeable rate hike by the water utility might be distasteful. After all, the cost of living in Monroe County is the highest among Florida’s 67 counties and the FKAA is not the only local agency or government body that imposes taxes or charges fees.
However, the Stock Island reverse osmosis plant was built in 1967 and after upgrades, operates today with 1970s technology. It costs the FKAA about $1 million a year in repairs and the eventual end to being able to merely repair the plant is in sight. Kirk Zuelch, executive director of utility, said “it’s like an old car. We’re spending a lot of money on it and it’s not as reliable.”
From a consumption standpoint, the plant was originally built to produce 3 million gallons of water a day in case of an emergency. Today, the Lower Keys use about 8 million gallons of water each day. To increase plant capacity to 4 million gallons a day, it requires the sizeable expenditure.
Think of the reverse osmosis plant as an insurance policy. Insurance policies can be viewed as unpleasant because it feels like you pay and pay and get nothing back in return. That is, until you need it. You may dislike paying those monthly medical premiums but you sure are happy to have it if a serious illness crops up.
It’s natural if many residents have fallen into a false sense of security about our water supply and may perceive the $38 million price tag to upgrade the plant as unnecessary or ill-conceived. But imagine if we lost water from the Seven Mile Bridge south. You can bet that plant would then be viewed as a blessing.
The board was wise to consider seeking alternate funding. Whether the Legislature provides it is another question. We have a governor who loathes bonding projects and this year, the Keys received $13 million through the Florida Keys Stewardship Act to be split among local governments for various water-quality projects. You can bet those local governments would resist giving up any of their share of that or future Stewardship Act money.
Still, Raschein should pursue money for the plant upgrade. Because at some point due to a disaster natural or manmade, the water might very well stop flowing.