Water quality really is about the future

Alison Higgins, Key West Sustainability Coordinator, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about water quality.

This is water quality month.

Higgins said, “I’m pretty excited. As part of our strategic planning, we’re working with the experts here on water quality in the Keys to figure out what the city can do to help move that needle.”

The group came up with 11 main goals they presented to the City Commission in September.

Higgins said, “They said, that’s great, tell us what we can do now. I said, the next step is to go back and actually turn these goals and actionable steps to get there. So, once a month, I’ve been convening, whoever has anything to do with any of these 11 subjects. So we’ve been doing two subjects a month. Thus far, we’ve talked through derelict vessels and other large debris. We’ve talked about vessel pump outs. We just had one on Monday, and it was about stormwater. It kind of was divided into three different things. One, how do you reduce the amount of pollutants that might get in the stormwater? How do you keep the rainwater from becoming stormwater in the first place? And then three, once it’s out there, how do you clean it up? Cleaning up the water at the end, is the hardest step. So on the prevention side, we talked about fertilizers, we talked about dog waste, we talked about people throwing stuff in canals. We’re looking at are there policies are there, tickets are there other best management practices already in motion in other places that we can learn from?”

In keeping rainwater from becoming stormwater, there are some things that can be done.

Higgins said, “The official rule is you have to keep the first one inch of rain that falls on your property, on your property. Obviously, over time, there’s many places down here who on the weekend paint here and pave there and a lot of impervious services. One, obviously, rooftops are half the landscape here in the US. So if you just encourage more people to either use a cistern or even just rain barrels to catch that water off the roof, that goes a long way. Right now, if you have a cistern or a rainbow barrel, it doesn’t count toward your stormwater credit of keeping that one inch on your property. The reason why is because there’s a problematic aspect. When you have people put in swales, you’ve got the big ditch where it all gathers and then it seeps back in. Well, once that rain barrel’s full, and if you don’t use the water in there, the very next rain, it’s not catching anything for you. It’s full. So if somebody just puts one in and ignores it’s only functioning for stormwater that first rainfall.”

The third one is a person could use a trickle function.

Higgins said, “If you’re not using it, just so that it can just trickle out after the storm has passed. So it fills up fast, but then lets it out over the course of the next day or so. So you could do something like that and have that still be able to function.”

The group also talked about what the city had already done in terms of stormwater.

Higgins said, “When you see the different stormwater outlets that are along the curbs, one, we have a great partnership with Reef Relief. But what people don’t realize is we’ve actually put stuff in between that hole in the ocean to catch most stuff. So they have what’s called a baffle box. The baffles are these chambers when the water first of all down from the street, that it has to hit the first chamber first, and then fill up and then it spills over from the first chamber, the second. That process tends to leave all the heavy stuff behind, because only the water flows across the top.”

The baffle boxes have to be cleaned periodically.

Higgins said, “We have a big old truck that goes in with basically a giant straw that goes down there, and they clean them out. What’s interesting is they actually take notes on how much of what they remove is organic material, like leaves, or human trash.”

Plastics and straws certainly end up in the drains.

Higgins said, “Stuff like straws, that’s a lighter plastic object. So that potentially wouldn’t necessarily sink to the bottom of that first of those baffle boxes. So that is something that could potentially escape from those. But we’ve got a good 80 of those baffle boxes throughout the island and we put more in pretty much anytime we do roadwork that involves those stormwater outlets. We’re hoping that maybe the next time we put one in, we actually videotape that and make a little story about have you ever wondered what’s at the bottom of this? This is what we do. We’ve been doing some really cool stuff on the water quality side.”

Energy efficiency is also important.

Higgins said, “The city owns some 100 structures around the islands and we haven’t done much at all in the way of energy efficiencies on these buildings. So the good news is there are savings to be had. But we also want, because it’s such a large number of structures, we want to be kind of strategic in where we start. So this year, the city has a new helper. She is our energy and adaptation coordinator. There’s an online software where you plug in the size of every building, what the use of that building is, and then one year of energy use, and water use from your bills. It’ll tell you what your worst performing and highest performing buildings are. So we’ve been working on that. It’s really interesting because of these 100 buildings, just over half, we don’t even operate, so almost all of the historic bight area, all those restaurants are leases. So the city owns the building, but the restaurant that’s in it leases it and they’re in charge of keeping up the building. But how much are they keeping up the building? In the same vein as energy, because we are also looking at things from the resilience adaptation angle, when was the last time we really looked these buildings over to try to be more proactive in their needs for either window hardening or flooding issues. So we’re trying to wrap all those things into one plan, because it’s usually if you got old windows that are leaking or a hole somewhere, that’s an energy thing, and a resilience thing. If you’ve got to replace a wall, you might as well put insulation in at that time.”