An aerial view of Key Largo and the 18-mile stretch. ANDY NEWMAN/Florida Keys News Bureau/

While the Florida Keys led the way in ridding leaky septic systems and cesspools, municipalities continue to wait for tens of millions in federal reimbursement. Following a letter from U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 2020 work plan, which was delivered to Congress on Feb. 10, shows the highest level of funding in over a decade.

Mucarsel-Powell, who serves as vice chair of the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, announced that the work plan includes $5 million in the Corps’ environmental infrastructure account for the Florida Keys Water Quality Improvement Program (FKWQIP). Congress directed the Corps in the early 2000s to assist local municipalities in Monroe County with the development and implementation of wastewater and stormwater improvements. It approved spending up to $100 million on wastewater funding.

In 2010, the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District and city of Marathon completed its sewer projects, while Islamorada concluded its sewer work in December 2015.

The Corps has paid $68.5 million so far to municipalities, leaving just over $31 million in reimbursements back to the county.

“It’s a huge win for the environment and public health and the economy,” Mucarsel-Powell told the Weekly following the announcement that the $5 million was included. “But we’re not there yet. We’ll continue to work to get the complete (amount). It’s time that the Army Corps prioritize and provide complete funding in this issue. It’s been 19 years.”

Mucarsel-Powell said the president zeroed out the Corps’ environmental infrastructure account, which funds FKWQIP, in the 2020 budget request. Through advocating and talks with the Corps, Mucarsel-Powell said the funds have been put back into the work plan.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental infrastructure account provides funding for wastewater projects throughout the U.S. As witnessed in the Keys, such projects are essential when it comes to safeguarding the environment and supporting an economy that thrives off the water.

“When I meet with the Army Corps, they constantly tell me the best managed projects from everything they see has been the way the Florida Keys managed this program,” Mucarsel-Powell said.

Last year, local and state officials met in Islamorada with Mucarsel-Powell and U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, chair of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, to discuss funding for water quality projects and collaboration among all levels on the front of Everglades restoration. Napolitano, who made her first visit to Islamorada in October, lauded the leadership of Mucarsel-Powell in working with the Corps to address water quality needs of the Keys.

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell

“In her first year with the subcommittee, Mucarsel-Powell has been a tireless advocate for protecting the water quality of South Florida, including the Keys and the Everglades, which is reflected in this announcement by the Corps,” Napolitano said.

The securing of funds also gained praise from the village of Islamorada and the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District.

“Islamorada thanks Mucarsel-Powell for prioritizing the Florida Keys Water Quality Improvement Program to fund vital environmental infrastructure projects in the Florida Keys,” Islamorada Village Manager Seth Lawless said. “The environmental infrastructure funding will help the village with projects that benefit the sensitive National Marine Sanctuary ecosystem.”

Peter Rosasco, general manager for the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District, said federal funding for the $1 billion project was essential, alongside state money and low-interest loans, in moving from septics to a sewer system. Rosasco said it’s arguably one of the top environmental infrastructure projects in Monroe County.

“We had all of these septics and cesspits, and due to the nature of the porous soil, it didn’t take long for effluent to migrate from those systems to nearshore waters,” he said. “There was a lot of science done at the time demonstrating what a serious impact it had on our nearshore waters.”

Rosasco thanked the congresswoman and the congressional delegation for their continued support.

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