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Key West infrastructure

Key West infrastructure | What happens when the pipes break?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

03/18/2023

Well, that was fun, huh? You know, the night the bars shut down and the water stopped running? You probably didn’t know it until you went to get some water in the middle of the night and went “what the heck.” That’s what happens when the Key West infrastructure breaks.

Last Saturday night about 9 p.m., a third water main break in almost as many days lowered water pressure to a trickle or dried taps completely. Until mid-week the Keys from the mainland to Key West were boiling water as a precaution and wondering when it was going to happen again.

For it most certainly will.

Key West is a tiny island at the end of three extraordinarily old and fragile umbilical cords connected to mainland Florida. Our water, our electricity and our communications depend on plugging into the mainland and praying the extension cords hold through hurricanes, boom trucks, out-of-control drivers, unfortunate sailboat captains, salt, water and sun. Oh, and the occasional iguana or bird shortening out a power line or substation.

It’s easy to forget we are an island archipelago. The Overseas Highway creates a sense of mainland driveability that lures us into thinking our infrastructure is more stable than it actually is. My brother, when he visited a decade ago, said, “You’re not as isolated as I thought.” Except we are.

Any pretense to being all up-to-date and securely modern is nothing more than fanciful thinking.

Ask the locals what happened in November, 2019, when a trash truck caught its “clam” in a tangle of wires on a utility pole in Islamorada and telephone, cable and internet service to every household, business and governing body went dark for hours. We couldn’t post outrage on social media, much less conduct business or reach 911.

We’ve kinda sorta gotten used to the electric and internet/cell outages. Frustrating, but rarely (except in major storms) do they last long enough to do serious harm. But water? I can’t remember the last time I turned on the tap and nada. During Hurricane Irma in 2017, dry taps were less of a challenge than electricity and communications. There was almost always water in the pipe albeit non-potable, as they say.

Key West Island News
A section of decades-old Keys water main pipe that burst last week. Photo courtesy of Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority.

Key West infrastructure: History and future

Keys Energy has been hardening our electrical grid for several years, replacing old poles and lines with those huge concrete ones built to withstand our hurricanes. We keep them above ground because it’s far easier to identify and repair a downed line than to dig. Retrofitting to underground, even if it were a good idea, would be jaw-droppingly expensive.

The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, whose crews did terrific work restoring water over the past week, starts the Islamorada Transmission Main Replacement Project in April. It’s a $35 million, four-mile project that will replace a 60-year-old section of our water supply. For a truly heart-stopping calculation, multiple $35 million by 38.7 four-mile segments. That’s what, give or take a few million, it would take to replace the whole thing.

Key West got its first electric power in 1889, generated on the island. Almost 100 years later, in 1987, our power grid hooked into the mainland. We import almost all our electricity with a bit of local generation possible for emergencies.

Our water is a gift from a partnership among the U.S. Navy, the feds and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Commission (now Authority). On Sept. 22, 1942, the first water through the pipeline arrived in Key West from Florida City — a then six-hour journey, depending on the rate of flow. Prior to the pipeline, Key West’s water supply was at the mercy of the rain and cisterns, which were used as collectors — and water was always in short supply.

The first Bell telephone system came to Key West in 1901, and the first international call — via telegraph cable — was made between Key West and Havana on Christmas Day 1900. Today, our phone “lines” begin on the mainland via cable strung from pole to pole, bringing us cell phones, television, social media, Netflix and credit-card readers and 911.

Our infrastructure clearly has reached its “use by” expiration date. I used to drag out the hurricane boxes in June and put them away in October. These days, they’re handy 24-7. Island living really is that fragile.

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