Over the last 20 years, the Keys have been on a major mission to clean up nearshore waters.
That meant spending a billion dollars to install central sewage systems along the island chain. And the waters surrounding the islands are a no discharge zone.
To help make that happen, the county offers free pumpouts for vessels, including those in marinas without pumpout facilities and boats that are tied up behind people's homes.
Monroe County officials suspect some of those boats are being used as illegal vacation rentals And in some cases, the owners could pay for their own pumpouts.
"Sometimes they can. Sometimes they can't. Sometimes they can and they won't," said Monroe County Commissioner David Rice. "Do we want the stuff in the water or not?"
The county pays Pumpout USA, a mobile pumpout service, $1 million a year. Most of that — $750,000 — comes from a state grant. The company is required to pumpout at least 2,200 vessels a month.
The program started in 2013 and the county says it has pumped more than 1.8 million gallons of sewage from boats that are anchored out or docked in the Keys.
Now that the county has finished installing central sewers on land, the next water quality priority is cleaning up canals. Commissioner Michelle Coldiron said eliminating pumpouts for boats behind homes could hurt that effort.
"That's my fear, if we make that statement, they're going to be just dumping it in the canals that we're taking all this time to clean up," she said. "Where I have a problem not liking that we're paying for pumpout to some recreational boat behind somebody's home, I think our mission here is to make sure our waters stay clean."
Commissioners agreed to keep the free service for boats behind homes - for now. But they also want marinas to upgrade their pumpout facilities and for homeowners with boats to start using those in the future, or start paying for their own service.