This past spring I drove down to Key West with my family to spend a relaxing week under the sun. We spent the majority of our time enjoying the spectacular sites of the keys from the beach in Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. Snorkeling was my favorite thing to do at the beach because of the crystal clear waters and diverse marine life. After an exhausting session of snorkeling one hot and sunny day, I got back to my beach chair and guzzled down a bottle of water. Afterwards I looked at the empty bottle and asked myself, “Where is Key West getting this fresh drinking water?”
After doing a little research I found that the 4,000 square mile Biscayne Aquifer, located near the Everglades National Park, is the main source of freshwater for the Keys. The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA) has well fields that pull water from Biscayne Aquifer and transport it to a nearby water treatment plant. Once the water is treated, 800 horsepower electric motors are used to pump the water through a pipeline 130 miles long.
The other method in which the keys acquire fresh drinking water is Reverse Osmosis Desalination (ROD), a process that simply converts saltwater to freshwater. Groundwater is taken from seawater wells and is treated at one of two desalination plants, located on Stock Island and in Marathon.
Learning the where and how the keys obtain freshwater was very interesting, however the environmental impact these methods are unsettling. First of all, converting saltwater to freshwater through (ROD) and pumping freshwater 130 miles down a pipeline are extremely energy intensive. This high demand for energy means high consumption of electricity and large outputs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Also the Biscayne Aquifer is not a safe and sustainable source of freshwater for the keys. It is an unconfined aquifer, meaning the top part is the water table. It is also coastal aquifer, meaning it merges with the floor of Biscayne Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Both of these factors make it extremely vulnerable to contamination. A lowered water table could lead to saltwater intrusion, and its proximity to the surface makes is susceptible to the entrance of septic tank drainage, runoff from landfills, sewage, pesticides, fertilizers, gasoline and other chemicals into the aquifer.
Because of the environmental issues that come with bringing freshwater to the keys, water conservation is a huge priority. Reducing the amount of water pumped from the mainland reduces the amount of energy used and reduces the risk of over pumping. Over pumping could lead to salt water intrusion into the Aquifer. Government regulations are a large factor in water conservation. For example, landscape irrigation is only permitted two days a week and it is also prohibited between 10:00am and 4:00pm. The FKAA also offers rebates to its customers to replace old toilets with newer and higher efficient toilets, creating an incentive to conserve water. State Parks such as Bahia Honda and Fort Zachary Taylor even use waterless urinals in their bathrooms to lessen their water use.
Water conservation is something that should be incorporated in everyone’s lifestyles, not just those in the keys. Using less water can be accomplished by the use of low flow shower heads, higher efficient toilets, side load washing machines, and greywater systems. A few other ideas are collecting rainwater to reuse for irrigation, applying water directly to roots of plants when watering, fixing leaky faucets, and turning off the water when brushing teeth.
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Beatley, Timothy, David J. Brower, and Anna K. Schwab. An Introduction to Coastal Zone Management. Washington (D.C.): Island, 1994. Print.