Protecting the Ecosystem
June 20th, 2019 by Brandon Pomrenke

Jessica Levy of the Coral Restoration Foundation, left, shows Florida Keys Electric Cooperative’s Sara Hamilton a Lesser Starlet Coral (Siderastrea radians). It was removed from an FKEC structure and relocated.
Photo by Nikki Cullen

Every day on the water is a good day for cooperative’s environmental manager

Few people are lucky enough to work in a job they not only enjoy, but one they feel makes a difference. Florida Keys Electric Cooperative’s Sara Hamilton is one of them.

As environmental manager for the cooperative, Sara spends some time behind a desk, but many tasks take her into the hardwood hammocks and along the coastline, which she loves.

“It’s something different all the time,” Sara says. “I might think I’ve got an office day when I’ll sit at my desk, but then I get a call and we’ve got to deal with an oil spill or there’s an osprey trying to build a nest in equipment.”

Sara has a master’s in coastal zone management and marine biology from Nova Southeastern University. She has been with FKEC more than nine years.

Her job is to ensure the cooperative is in environmental compliance with rules and regulations set forth by what she calls an alphabet soup of agencies that create and enforce rules to keep ecosystems and their inhabitants safe, including the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Luckily, we have a great relationship with them,” Sara says. “I think that’s because they know the co-op is going to do the right thing.”

The right thing includes FKEC’s commitment to hardening the transmission system. The co-op has been adding cathodic protection to power poles set in the water to protect against saltwater damage. She says that helps keep the utility’s assets safe.

“Saltwater is a very harsh environment, and the rebar in the poles can begin spalling, so we need to help strengthen the poles,” she says. “Replacing a pole on the water is not easy, it’s not cheap and it’s not fun. If one of these poles goes down, you’ve got to think it probably won’t be the only one. It will probably bring down at least one other, if not five others, which could mean weeks without power.”

Before the utility could get permits to begin work, Sara had to survey each pole and prepare an assessment. She documented what corals lived on and around the poles, as well as what seagrasses would be affected by barges so the co-op could minimize disruption to the ecosystem.

Minimizing damage to sea life is important to Sara, but her job also takes her into the hammock and along roadsides. The dense woods and high-traffic areas have challenges of their own.

“I’ve learned so much and I get to enjoy all the ecosystems of the Keys through my work,” she says. “I love it. One of my most fun projects is protecting six different listed endangered species when we’re trimming the right-of-way on County Route 905, which is between Dagny Johnson Botanical State Park and Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

“Part of our permit up there is to take certain precautions to protect the species. I’ll spend several months just relocating tree snails off the branches that our guys trim and put them back into the hammock. We’ve saved thousands of these beautiful trees snails that you don’t really find anywhere else but South Florida or Hawaii in the U.S.”

Sara’s diligence and excitement when it comes to relocating snails has earned her the moniker “snail lady” from some of her co-workers, and “snail wrangler” from her husband, biologist David de Silva, an independent environmental consultant.

From the smallest tree snails to the sensitive corals clinging to coastal power poles, Sara sees her work—and the efforts of FKEC—as important to the local environment.

“I feel like we make a difference,” she says. “I’m very proud of what we do for our environment, whether we’re out protecting the smallest creatures in our environment or when we do our avian protection for eagles and osprey that live in our area.”

It’s not all work for Sara. Since moving from Ohio in 1999 after spending a semester on Long Key, she has made the most of Florida living.

Her family loves getting out on their boat, walking through the hammocks, fishing, diving and lobstering.

“Spending time with family, especially outdoors, is all quality time,” Sara says.
Sara says she appreciates that the community looks out for one another, and can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“We live in such an environmentally sensitive area and we see our environment as part of our membership,” Sara says. “Most of our members live down here because of this environment, because of the beauty of the waters and the beauty of the majestic hardwood hammocks.”