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Florida Keys Threatened by Water Pollution

The Florida Keys consist of a number of interdependent ecosystems, from tropical hardwood forests to surrounding transitional mangrove wetlands, seagrass meadows, hard and soft bottom, and the third-largest coral reef system in the world.

The environments that make up the Key's complex ecosystem coexist in a balanced, but dynamic equilibrium. This means that changes in one can negatively and profoundly impact surrounding systems. For example, the continued existence of the marine ecosystem depends upon low nutrient levels, and clear waters. Human impact, unchecked development, storm runoff, and the changing climate contribute to water pollution throughout the Keys.

Historically, development relied on the use of cesspits and septic tanks which provide little in terms of treatment of wastewater. As the population and tourism have increased, the opportunities for stormwaters to run into nearshore surface waters has become a growing problem. The lack of nutrient removal from wastewater and stormwater has resulted in increased nutrients being released into confined waters and nearshore areas. These discharges have led to the serious degradation of water quality.

Long Bridge at Florida Keys

Why Water Quality is A Concern

Water quality is the element that connects all ecosystems and is essential to maintaining the diversity and richness of those environments. Currently, the Keys are experiencing water quality issues as a result of multiple factors, including:

  • The exchange of ground and surface waters driven by tidal pumping.

  • Cesspits were prevalent during the 1940s as urbanization began. Today, cesspits are illegal under current statutes. They can be a health hazard and contribute to water pollution.

  • Contaminants in stormwater runoff like pesticides, herbicides, and petroleum contribute substantially to the degradation of water quality in nearshore areas.

  • Seagrass beds located near the mouths of some degraded canal systems exhibit signs of stress and the growth of benthic algae.

  • Recreational boating is resulting in increased turbidity and re-suspended sediments. This is an area of concern in many areas with high boat traffic including canals, open water, and nearshore waters.

  • Sewage discharge from these vessels degrade the water quality in the marinas where they are docked and other confined water anchorages.

  • Discharge of nutrients and other effluents into Florida Bay, oceanic and Gulf of Mexico currents, rainwater, and other natural sources are adding nutrients to surface waters throughout the Keys.

Declining water quality is impacting both nearshore and surface water throughout the Keys. The Keys are home to the third-largest coral reef system in the world the reefs are being hit hard and showing signs of declining health, coral diseases are becoming more common, and benthic algae have increased in abundance and coverage.

Mileage signpost on key west florida beach

Addressing Water Pollution

The growth of population and the increase in tourism have brought the issue of water pollution to the forefront. Towns throughout the Keys are investing in improved wastewater treatment and decommissioning illegal cesspits and septic systems. This is expected to significantly reduce the impacts of wastewater.

New state and federal laws regarding marine sanitation devices have resulted in improvements in reducing bacteria and nutrients. The sanctuary-wide prohibition of sewage discharge and improvements in the number of pump-out facilities have also positively impacted water quality.

Efforts are also currently underway to address stormwater runoff as well as water contamination from activities associated with boating and marinas including toxic metals, overboard solid waste disposal, and hydrocarbons.

Ongoing Research Provides Solutions

Ongoing research by scientists is providing critical information that is being used to address existing resource conservation and management. Programs include Water Quality Monitoring, Ongoing Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring, and Seagrass Monitoring Programs.

These research scientists are working on identifying new and existing problems and working to develop viable solutions. Questions being addressed include:

  • What is the level of nutrients from Florida Bat and the Gulf and how is it impacting waters surrounding the Keys?

  • What are the impacts of natural episodic events like rainfall, major storms, and upwellings on water quality?

  • What is the impact of nutrient loading and decomposing seagrass along shorelines, in canals, and in the confined water bodies, in nearshore waters?

  • What are the impacts of pest control spraying (for example mosquito control efforts to reduce West Nile and dengue) on non-target organisms like the Queen conch?

The water pollution threat in the Florida Keys is real, and we are currently seeing the results of growing urbanization and increased human impact. The good news is that scientists are studying and identifying the sources of declining water quality and diligently working to develop solutions.

Through legislation, monitoring, and programs addressing the issue, awareness is growing. But the truth is, the clock is ticking. If we are going to get water pollution under control and minimize its future impact on the Keys, we must accelerate our efforts.

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