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New billion-dollar water system in Florida Keys sent raw sewage into ocean, state says

The Florida Keys opened a billion-dollar sewer system in 2017 to carry wastewater to underground wells. Leaders say the $200 million portion in the Lower Keys protects nearshore waters and the coral reef, a cornerstone of the island chain’s fragile ecosystem.

But within two years of the new system’s completion, parts started hemorrhaging raw sewage into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, according to documents obtained by the Miami-Herald/FLKeysnews.com.

And according to another internal document obtained by the Miami Herald this week from the water utility that runs the wastewater system, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, the cost of the state-mandated repairs is estimated to exceed $16 million.

The documents reveal that the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, known as FKAA, has been under two Florida Department of Environmental orders to make the needed repairs since January 2022. The Keys utility has already been fined more than $45,000.

A Florida Department of Environmental Protection investigation found that between June 2020 and February 2021, 90,749 gallons of raw sewage leaked from the Lower Keys portion of the utility’s wastewater facilities, according to the documents.

“The consent orders require that FKAA takes steps to eliminate unauthorized sanitary sewer discharges and failures to meet effluent limitations at the Big Coppitt and Cudjoe Wastewater Treatment Facilities,” David Hackworth, FKAA’s director of engineering told the utility’s executive director, Greg Veliz, in an April memo.

The facilities named by Hackworth as needing repairing are on Cudjoe, Big Coppitt, Ramrod and Summerland keys, according to the memo.

The repair projects are included in the fiscal year 2025 capital improvement budget and estimated to cost $16 million, Hackworth wrote.

How the pipes are supposed to work in the Florida Keys

Sewage in the Keys is transported via a series of pipes and pump stations to a centralized location on Cudjoe Key — about 23 miles north of Key West. Once there, it is treated to remove harmful pathogens and other waste, and the remaining water is injected into a deep well.

It’s not clear from the documents obtained by the Miami Herald how the leaks happened, but the Keys’ ground is made up of porous, fossilized coral, making it easy for liquid to seep into the ocean, gulf and bay.

That is why the state mandated a centralized wastewater system for the Keys in the first place. Keys sewage used to be flushed into cesspits where it was untreated and eventually escaped into the sea.

According to Hackworth’s memo, the parts of the system that need repair include the deep injection well on Cudjoe Key, a storage unit on Big Coppitt Key and pump stations on Ramrod and Summerland keys.

Jon Moore, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, confirmed that the orders seen by the Miami Herald are the “only two active consent orders for FKAA’s wastewater system.”

KNOW MORE: Three Florida Keys water main pipes burst in a week. The state is now investigating

Utility under investigation

The revelation of the sewage leaks comes the same month the Miami Herald obtained a letter from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection stating it launched an investigation into the Keys water utility over three consecutive freshwater main breaks in March that threatened to cut off drinking water to homes and businesses throughout the island chain. Those pipes are much older, circa 1982, than the problematic new sewage pipes.

Veliz has said that the entire aging underground pipe system that brings drinking water from the mainland in Florida City needs replacing, but the utility lacks the funds needed to complete the job, the cost of which he estimates to be more than $1 billion.

The utility is in the process of replacing five miles of underground pipe in the Upper Keys village of Islamorada, a project that is scheduled to be completed in 2025 and cost $42 million. But Veliz has said repeatedly since the March water main breaks that the FKAA doesn’t have money to replace pipes in the rest of the Keys.

A large gash is shown on a Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority water pipe Thursday, March 9. 2023. The pipe break caused several government offices and Keys schools to close.
A large gash is shown on a Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority water pipe Thursday, March 9. 2023. The pipe break caused several government offices and Keys schools to close.

The state environmental protection department said in its May 5 letter announcing the investigation that it had found the breaks happened because the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority “failed to maintain its system in good operating condition so as to function as intended.”

The water utility also “has known for some time that there is a desperate need for the transmission main,” wrote Jason Andreotta, southeast district director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The cause of the pipe breaks, according to the letter, is “a very deteriorating water system that has not undergone assessment until recent years.” Andreotta added that a reverse osmosis desalinization plant on Stock Island in the Lower Keys, which augments the fresh water supply that comes from the mainland in Florida City, is also deteriorating.

Veliz, who declined to comment for this story, has said that he and utility staff are continually looking for new sources of funding to replace the existing pipes and that the problem started before his two-year tenure at the utility.

A Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority crew replaces pipes under U.S. 1 in this 2016 photo.
A Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority crew replaces pipes under U.S. 1 in this 2016 photo.

Threats to the Keys environment and economy

Ed Davidson, a Keys environmental activist and past chairman of the Florida Audubon Society,wants the South Florida Water Management District — the state agency responsible for overseeing water resources in the region — to take over management at the utility.

That actually happened in the 1980s when then-Gov. Bob Graham dismissed the utility’s board because he lacked confidence members could oversee the system when the then-new pipes were installed. Those are the same pipes that are now breaking and threatening the livelihood of those who live and do business in the Keys.

“This investigation indicates that the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority has recently been officially cited by a government agency for leaking millions of gallons of fresh water on the way to the Keys and for spewing tens of thousands of gallons of sewage after leaving your homes and businesses,” Davidson, also a local dive shop owner, told the Miami Herald. “Thus, widely contaminating surface and ground water in the Lower Keys and our nearshore tourist and fishing waters.

Water pipes are propped up on the side of U.S. 1 at mile marker 79 in the Florida Keys Tuesday, March 14, 2023. The pipes are part of a $42-million project to replace aging infrastructure in the Upper Keys.
Water pipes are propped up on the side of U.S. 1 at mile marker 79 in the Florida Keys Tuesday, March 14, 2023. The pipes are part of a $42-million project to replace aging infrastructure in the Upper Keys.

The utility’s woes also come as Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law that will allow the building of 1,300 additional affordable housing units in the Keys, where development has already outpaced the infrastructure to support it.

Richard Grosso, an environmental attorney hired by several residents seeking to block the passage of the bill, HB 627, said what’s happening with the utility’s fresh water and sewage systems is the concerns of those residents coming to fruition.

“The Keys are the first community in Florida where these problems are becoming apparent, but they won’t be the last,” Grasso said in an email to the Herald. “The evidence is building that our priority needs to shift away from encouraging new and more development to focus instead on meeting the challenges we face to maintain the health and safety and quality of life for existing residents.”