A pipe with noticeable wear that burst at MM 92 in Tavernier last March. FKAA/Contributed

A state agency tasked with protecting Florida’s water resources recently issued a “warning letter” to the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority over its deteriorating water system. 

Possible violations were stated for FKAA’s failure to “maintain its system in good operating condition,” per a May 5 letter by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to FKAA officials. Greg Veliz, FKAA executive director, said his agency is communicating with DEP over system improvements — funding remains the key component to more progress. 

DEP said the letter is part of an agency investigation following several water main breaks in the Upper Keys in March. The first break occurred in the early morning of March 8 near Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina in Islamorada. Just when that pipe was repaired, another major break was reported roughly eight miles north in Tavernier. 

Water users from Tavernier to Key West experienced low water pressure as crews worked diligently to repair the pipe. FKAA’s reserves for emergencies were depleted following a total of four breaks between March 8 and March 23. Messages to conserve water were issued to residents and visitors through various channels to help the system restore. Boil water notices were also issued for a short time. 

To relieve pressure on the system and mitigate further breaks, FKAA reduced the amount of water that was pumped into the Keys from its Florida City plant. At one point, FKAA pumped 26 million gallons of water per day. Today, 22 million gallons per day are being pumped from the mainland to the island chain. 

Veliz, who appeared before the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners on May 17,  said the agency is incrementally increasing the pressure. 

“We’re serving the needs of the community,” Veliz said. “There’s a lot of water. We have plenty of water. It’s just getting it down here and babying this along until we can finish some of these pipe projects.”

DEP said it’s reviewing possible violations of the Florida Air and Water Pollution Control Act, Chapter 403.161, and Maintenance of Public Water Systems, Chapter 62-555, which deals with keeping all public water system components in good operating condition. Jon Moore, DEP spokesman, said the warning letter to FKAA was issued as a first step in its enforcement process. FKAA is required to develop a structured path toward a timely and thorough rehabilitation of the drinking water infrastructure. 

“DEP will continue its stringent oversight to ensure the remaining repairs are conducted in a thorough but expeditious manner so that residents have access to a restored, fully functioning drinking water system as soon as possible,” Moore said. 

DEP also noted an inspection of the Stock Island Reverse Osmosis Plant that was completed last October. In the letter, DEP states that the plant was in a deteriorated state. 

Veliz said FKAA has been communicating with DEP and providing it with any requested information regarding the system. 

“Prior to them receiving the last batch of information requested, they sent out the warning letter, which caught us by surprise,” Veliz said. “Apparently, it’s not something unusual when it comes to DEP. They acknowledged that we’re doing all the corrective actions we need to do.”

Veliz added that he spoke to the DEP’s district deputy director, who told him that FKAA is headed in the right direction with $115 million in current projects to address worn pipes. 

“I’m fine with all of us working together; just a large part of what we do is contingent on funding,” he said. “If they can work with us to help us secure funding, then I will keep whatever they put out for us.

“I can move as fast as the funding is supplied. We’re going through every avenue we know possible to get funding,” Veliz continued. 

Work began last month on a $42-million, 4-mile transmission main replacement project between MM 79.5 and Whale Harbor Channel at MM 84 in Islamorada. So far, construction crews successfully installed 900 feet of new pipe underwater at Tea Table Relief crossing and roughly 3,660 feet of new transmission main along the highway. 

Crews have installed more than 3,600 feet of new transmission main in Islamorada since early April. FKAA/Contributed

Veliz said FKAA also has plans to replace roughly two miles of deteriorated pipe on Windley Key and several miles of pipe on Plantation Key. Veliz said two osmosis plants in Marathon and Stock Island are in the planning stages. Together, the two plants will generate 8 million gallons a day. 

“That (drinking water) will be obviously easier to access than bringing it from Florida City, although more expensive to run,” Veliz said. 

Jim McCarthy is one of the many Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 4-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.