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Flush Away! Florida Keys Celebrate Sewers

Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority
The recently completed Cudjoe Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant is the final step in upgrading sewage treatment throughout the Keys.

Twenty years ago, only a few areas in the Keys had central sewer systems.

The rest of the island chain was using a combination of shallow injection wells, septic tanks — and even some cesspits, basically holes in the ground that provided no treatment at all.

Since the Keys consists of fossilized coral, that meant polluted water could easily move to canals and shorelines.

In 1999, the state ordered the Keys to upgrade to wastewater treatment at the highest possible levels. Since then, Monroe County and various Keys cities and communities have built central sewer plants and hooked up thousands of homes and businesses.

The last major plant, serving the Lower Keys, was recently completed. On Thursday, the county is holding a "sewer celebration" to mark its accomplishment.

"It's pretty exciting," said Monroe County Mayor George Neugent. "We can quit talking about sewage — to some degree."

Neugent has been on the commission during the entire process and said it's been a sometimes painful but ultimately gratifying experience.

During the same period, the Keys also made its waters a "no discharge zone" and provided free pumpouts for boats, so their wastewater also gets collected and treated.

Upgrading wastewater treatment throughout the island chain "was a billion-dollar project that a county with 77,000 residents was able to accomplish," Neugent said.

He said state and federal aid provided about $170 million of that.

Now, he said, the region can serve as a model for other areas of the state.

"There's a reluctance, in my mind, and they're going to have to deal with it by the other areas in the state of Florida that are on septic systems," he said.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.