Non-Point Sources of Water Pollution in The Florida Keys

This topic submitted by Adam Cummins ( at 11:25 AM on 8/19/05.

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Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University

Adam Cummins
Research Paper

Non-Point Sources of Water Pollution in the Florida Keys

The Florida Key1s are home to the United States only barrier coral reef. Within the Keys mangrove forest, sea grass meadows and endangered species inhabit this area. A major environmental problem threatens the life of these rare and important ecosystems. Pollution from human waste and agriculture runoff are the main threats. Beaches have already been closed for health advisories because of a high fecal matter found in the waters (Monroe County, 2000). There are two types of water pollution: point source and non-point source. Point source is easy to identify and are typically released from a stationary facility. Non-point sources are harder to trace and is often caused by runoff. The problem with wastewater in the Keys comes from both point and non-point sources. The point source is from wastewater treatment facilities and the non-point from faulty septic tanks and cesspits.

The main problem is the non-point sources. Because of the cost to put in wastewater treatment systems, developers are forced to use cesspits and septic tanks as a way to deal with waste water. These become non-point sources of pollution.
“ The unique geology of the environment, and the extreme cost of establishing centralized sewage associated with this environment, have forced developers to utilize septic systems and cesspits as the primary means of household wastewater disposal in this area” (Darden, 1998)

Cesspits are large holes made in the limestone of the Keys, where raw wastewater is basically pumped into and is supposed to act as a treatment method. But because of the geology of the Keys it acts more as a disposal technique than anything. The idea behind cesspits is that they are supposed to have a “polishing” affect. The wastewater is supposed to filter through the substrate and a natural pollutant removal. The problem is that in order for the “polishing” affect to work, you need at least two feet of soil to filter the pollutants out. The Keys, however, consist of limestone as a substrate. Travel time for the wastewater to enter back into the environment is supposed to be around a hundred days or so but in the Keys it is a matter of hours. So basically raw untreated sewage is going directly back into the surrounding marine environment (Darden, 1998).

Septic tanks are basically the same situation. Wastewater travels to the septic tank and into the leetchfield. The travel time for the wastewater is the same for the some reasons mentioned earlier. These cesspits and septic tanks are predicted to be the main source of pollution of the Keys and it is estimated that 30,000 septic tanks still exist in the Key today (Monroe County, 2000).


Coral reefs are one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. They create an environment for many species and have a huge number of biodiversity. They provide a barrier to the islands from natural disasters such as hurricanes and also are big part of their 2.5 million persons visiting the Keys each year (ACF, 2000).

The impacts of these non-point sources are having a noticeable affect on the sensitive surrounding marine environment “ the normally translucent green seawater around the 25 islands has become the color of pea soup” (ACF, 2000). One study has shown that in over half of the areas studied, fecal matter has been present in the surface waters. Corals need clean, clear and nutrient free waters to thrive and the nitrates and phosphates from the wastewater prevent this. They suffocate the reefs by depleting the oxygen and increasing the number of plankton, bacteria, viruses and other small organisms (Darden, 1998). These factors combined cause more coral diseases and kill the reefs.

Without the coral reefs you have a decrease in biodiversity, you loose a barrier from storms and you loose a large amount of money from tourism. The coral reefs are not only important to the marine ecosystems but also to the humans that inhabit the land around them.


Most regulations from the federal level are aimed at point sources and it is left up to local governments to solve the problem of non-point sources. The Clean Water Act has been helpful in keeping our nations waters clean but it still remains ineffective in combating all sources of water pollution. It still hasn’t helped with non-point sources. The Act leaves it up the states to identify their own sources of non-point pollution and provide methods for dealing with it.

A helpful mechanism for non-point sources of water pollution has been the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act. It has brought the federal, state and local governments to implement regulations for non-point sources. It also directs the EPA and Governor to implement a Water Quality Protection Program. Although not entirely successful, it’s a step in the right direction to control non-point sources of water pollution. Another important act has been the Coastal Zone Management Act. It has granted states the power to develop their own enforceable mechanisms for dealing with non-point source pollution.
Many bills have been proposed and passed but none directed at the problem of non-point source polltuion in the Florida Keys. Those that have been directed at the Keys have been shut down are still up for approval.

Residents themselves have been reluctant to fork over the money to help clean up the waters surrounding the Keys. Adequate sewage systems would be very costly for residents but would pay off in the long run. The majority of residents in the Keys make their living off of tourism. The tourists come to see the beautiful beaches and coral reefs. Without these, there would be no tourism and therefore no money. Also the residents of the Keys fear that any solution to the sewage problem will spur new development, “ The truth is, Key Largo has already grown beyond its sustainability. It will not spur new development; rather, it will simply meet the critical current need for advanced waste treatment” (Monroe County, 2000).

The problems with pollution in the Keys have been existent for many years now. Since there have been no federal regulations for non-point sources of pollution, it’s left up to the citizens to take control and practice sustainable development. Though costly, its necessary to get rid of the old cesspits and septic tanks and replace them with advanced water treatment systems. Something has to be done before it becomes a serious problem. Without the coral reefs you have a decrease in biodiversity, you loose a barrier from storms and you loose a large amount of money from tourism. The coral reefs are not only important to the marine ecosystems but also to the humans that inhabit the land around them.

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