The Case of the Mysterious Water Contamination

In early December when water testing in Key West harbor showed off-the-chart numbers for fecal contaminants, the city rounded up the usual suspects:  the boaters.  Them again!  Certainly they were polluting the harbor by not using mandatory holding tanks and new regulations for offshore liveaboards were swiftly introduced.  But the data collected by The Blue Paper tells a very different story.

Between November 19 and December 3, the city conducted two weeks of testing in eleven different locations on the west coast of the island.  The first striking observation is how irregular the results are.  While there is barely a trace of fecal bacteria at the Westin Marina for instance, the numbers in nearby Key West Bight Marina were on several occasions greater than five times the “poor” threshold testing guidelines set by the state’s Healthy Beaches program and the Environmental Protections Agency (EPA).  Likewise and bizarrely enough, even though the results in Key West Bight were abysmal for four to five days, they were, for the most part, acceptable during the rest of the two-week study period.  So what is the source of such erratic water pollution?

According to the official explanation [as reported in the Key West Citizen] the floating community anchored offshore is responsible for the water pollution and the high level of fecal bacteria is due to the bad habits of a few liveaboard boaters who still refuse to use holding tanks and the free pumpout service provided by the County.  But if such is the case, wouldn’t a bad habit of this nature create a routine, a routine that in turn would produce consistent results?  After all, the use of toilets is hardly part of the ‘unpredictables in life’.  So, why is the test data in the harbor so variable?

What could be the explanation for such a strange phenomena?  When carefully reviewing the water quality test data only one factor seems to have a systematic connection to the pollution variation and that factor is rainfall.  When we cross reference the testing data with rainfall data we see that the test results are generally ‘good’ when there is no precipitation and off the charts during and directly after rainfall.

From November 19 to November 24, minimal amounts of rainfall were registered at the Key West International Airport weather station.  During that initial testing period the readings were generally ‘good’ at the 11 stations tested.  On November 25th, 1.3 inches of rain was recorded and the water quality testing results began to show trouble.  More rain on the 26th and the 27th and the readings went off the charts.  The test results gradually improved after it stopped raining and water quality gradually returned to normal in most testing locations after a few days of dry weather.

So it appears that somehow, when it rains, a considerable amount of fecal bacteria [the kind found in raw sewage] finds its way into the harbor. But how is that possible?  The City has spent millions of dollars upgrading its sewer system.  There are two completely separate networks:  The raw sewage and graywater [from household toilets and drains] which ends up at the wastewater treatment plant on Fleming Key and the stormwater system which sends rainwater directly into the ocean.  “There is no communication between the two systems,” says City Utilities Manager, Jay Gewin.

But as it turns out this may be wishful thinking.  In fact, existing data shows indications of dramatic exchanges between the wastewater system and stormwater drainage.  The Key West sewer treatment plant keeps records of how many gallons of wastewater enter the plant each day.  When we cross-referenced the volume of wastewater coming into the plant with NOAA’s precipitation data we realized that the volume of wastewater flowing into the plant nearly doubles during heavy rainfall.

For instance, on November 21 [during the two-week testing period], zero rainfall was recorded down at the airport and the wastewater treatment plant recorded 3.9 Million gallons of inflow, but during the rain on the 26th, 6 Million gallons flowed into the plant and another 10.7 Million gallons during the heavy rainfall on the 27th.  Those are also the days when intense pollution was found in waters at Key West Bight.  If such an enormous amount of rainwater managed to find its way into the sewer system and into the wastewater treatment plant, is it not to be expected that sewage could in turn contaminate stormwater outflow systems and find its way into the ocean?  This issue is in no way particular to Key West.  Aging utility lines in many cities around the country produce similar contamination issues.

Another series of data also confirms the insalubrious exchanges between raw sewage lines and stormwater drains.  The City keeps track of salinity levels at the various sewage lift stations. This data indicates whether seawater is infiltrating the sewer lines.  There are two wastewater lift stations in the Key West Bight area and data shows that at times saltwater contamination can be as high as 9%.

“The storm drain at Simonton and Front Streets smells like a sewer,” says Scott Ferguson, a local who likes to relax at the new bar on Simonton Street beach, “It is particularly bad after the rain.”   When we checked the incriminating storm drain [located caddy-corner to the Rum Barrel], indeed a distinctly foul smell was emanating from its depths and the continuous sound of running water could be heard, even though it had not rained for days.

CHART OUTFALLSFinally, we compared the locations that tested high for contamination with the chart showing citywide stormwater outfall locations.  It is striking that at the Westin Marina, where there were almost no fecal contamination results, there are no stormwater outfalls, but in the Key West Bight Marina area, where contamination levels were the worst, there are no less than 6 stormwater outfalls.

After reviewing these facts, it seems clear that the live aboard boaters are being singled out as scapegoats.  If floating communities anchored off Fleming Key had anything to do with the pollution in Key West Bight waters, the results would be constant and consistent among the different testing locations in the area.  In fact, the testing done at the harbor entrance located immediately below the anchorage area shows no contamination during the two-week testing period.

The fact that even in Key West we are apt to project the blame onto those least able to defend themselves is worth mentioning. A ‘pitch-forks and torches’ editorial published by The Citizen was so eloquent that it is worth quoting:

“City officials have reason to believe the source of the bacteria stems from illegal dumping of holding tank sewage by boat owners moored in the City’s sole marina field, moored at anchor offshore or docked in marinas (…) all enforcement measures and penalties must be considered.  Once warned, no penalty is too harsh, including lifetime banning from Key West waters of recreational boats, houseboats or any vessel that knowingly continues to pollute our water.”

Will the same uncompromising policies be proposed to chastise Key West homeowners and business owners, if, as the data appears to show, it is proven that they, not the boaters, are the source of the water pollution?

Key West harbor needs to be cleaned up.  The city has spent millions of dollars replacing broken sewer lines.  Last year the new sewer main beneath Roosevelt Boulevard cost the City over $4 Million.  In recent years, the City’s Utility Department has overseen a reduction in saltwater infiltration to such an extent that the wastewater treatment plant now receives an inflow of an average 3.5 Million gallons per day instead of the 6 Million gallons per day that was the norm when the sewage clean-up project started in 1994.

Under the direction of Jay Gewin and OMI, the City was honored, just two years ago, for having one of the top treatment plants of its size in the sate of Florida reflecting the City’s superior operation of the wastewater treatment plant and collection system.

But obviously, these systems are not perfect just yet and somehow, somewhere, raw sewage appears to be making its way into stormwater lines during periods of heavy rain.

Deliberately pointing the finger at the wrong party is not going to help address the real problem.

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Full Disclosure:  Naja and Arnaud Girard were liveaboard boaters for many years prior to purchasing a home in Old Town Key West in 2007.