History of the 

By Jerry Wilkinson

      "You never miss the water 'till the well runs dry" -Roland Howard. In the case of the Upper Keys, it was the cistern and not the well that ran dry. The Ancient Mariner proclaimed, "Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink." The indigenous Keys Indians had various fresh-water holes and reportedly a few artesian wells to obtain drinking water. They simply must have had fresh water for their survival; however, that was long before we decided to drain the Everglades for more usable land. The cutting of canals not only drained surface water, but also sub-surface water. It lowered the fresh water table from three to five feet in the Keys.

    Lower Matecumbe Key was a favorite location for fresh water from almost the beginning of historic times. In her writings, Hester Perrine wrote of a 1840 trip with her father, Dr. Henry Perrine, to a large fresh water hole that she named "The Fairy Grotto."  There were fresh water springs in the Miami area. Dr. Jacob Motte reported in 1838: "We were fortunate in hitting upon this spot, for there we found a remarkable spring of fresh water." This could have been what became known as the "Devil's Punch Bowl."

    In 1852 a British patent, known as the de Normandy Patent, was granted for a sea water desalination system. It used as a thermal driving force. Three 7,000 a day units were purchased in 1861 by the U.S. One was installed at Fort Taylor, Key West and two at Fort Jefferson.

     Considering that Florida became a state in 1845, in these early Key West was the only populated center in the Keys. It being on Miami oolite as the Lower Keys are, a very limited quantity of fresh water could be obtained; however, the collection of rain water from roofs into cisterns were the only practical way to provide sufficient quantity for sustained human existence.

    In the Keys it would be difficult for the average household today to exist on water collected from roofs. The average rainfall is about 36 inches a year which would produce 3,000 cubic feet of water if collected from a 1,000 square foot roof. 3,000 cubic feet of water a year is about 22,200 gallons. Worldwide the average two occupant house uses 82 gallons per day, or 29,930 gallons a year; therefore, would be deficient of 7,730 gallons if 100 percent perfect, none loss to evaporation, leakage or cistern cleaning.

    Nevertheless, Key West had enough businesses and government buildings to collect an adequate supply of water until growth exceeded the cistern supply capability. Many creative methods were used to sustain the population growth of the late 1800s including a lot of sharing and use of salt water for flushing toilets and fire systems.

    Fresh water, both for human consumption and the making of concrete, was a problem for Henry Flagler in the construction of the Overseas Railway from 1905 to 1912. The following are excerpts from news articles found in the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida: February 20, 1906 - "An attempt will be made to secure artesian wells on the Keys along the line of the Key West Extension." July 7, 1906 - "The large fresh water tank at Big Pine Key has been completed. It has the capacity of 100,000 gallons and a 20-horsepower gasoline engine is being used for pumping purposes." February 15, 1907 “It is now said that the F.E.C. Railway will abandon the idea of laying a pipe line for conveying water to various points in the Keys as far as Key West, instead it will carry it in tank cars from Manatee Creek, where a pumping station has been in operation for some time. The supply of water at this point is unlimited, and the tank car method is more practical than the pipe line.” Manatee Creek is about at mile marker 113. October 9, 1908 - "The Extension [fresh water] well on Key Vaca [Marathon], which has been in charge of Mr. Ed Sheran, has finally been abandoned after reaching a depth of 680 feet." September 11, 1909 - "The Extension well at Indian Key water station is now down to 90 feet. The Messrs. Walker, who have charge of putting down this well are determined to make a record." In practice, except for Big Pine Key, water had to be stored in large tanks and transported by ship, barge or rail car from the mainland.

     In summary, the F.E.C. made many attempts to find fresh water; however the major wells were at Indian Key, Key Vaca, Knight's Key, Big Pine Key and Key West. All were relatively shallow, less than 700 feet, except the Key Vaca well mentioned above. Eventually, that well went down to 2,322 feet. Only the Big Pine Key surface collection system produced a useable quantity of fresh water. The only solution was to haul water in using tank cars - drilling was not feasible.

    At a special session of the Florida Legislature in October 1925, Monroe County was empowered to issue bonds or grant franchises for a water pipeline from Key West to the mainland. The Florida Land Boom probably influenced this decision.

      According to the "Key Largo City News" (A Miami real estate news journal) dated February 26, 1926 portions excerpted, "WATER SUPPLY PROBLEM MET SAYS KETCHEM - The following interview was given by assemblyman Charles Ketchum of Key West - ... Hon. John W. Martin, Governor of Florida, call an extraordinary session of the Florida Legislature for the purpose of enacting into law a measure called 'The Monroe County Special Water District,' whereby a complete fresh water system, covering all the Florida Keys from Florida City to Key West, a distance of 128 miles, could be made possible... The bill passed both branches of the Legislature...."

      A Trustees and Board of Water Commissioners were appointed and various companies investigated the possibilities. The unforeseen collapse of the Florida Land Boom after the hurricane of 1926, the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression of 1933 doomed this project. To my knowledge, nothing ever became of the studies and the saga continued.

     The early settlers and those prior to 1942 caught rainwater and stored it in large containers called cisterns. Sometimes the house was built on top of the cistern and other times it was a storage tank alongside the house. Some even elevated the tank so it could gravity feed into the house.

    This is what Captain Cliff Carpenter of Tavernier did. He had a circular tank ten feet across and ten feet high with a two by four supported roof and the ends covered with screen to keep out the vermin. About twice a year he would pour in about half of a condensed milk can of kerosene to put a thin film of oil on top of the water. This shut off the oxygen supply to organisms trying to breed in the water.

    Cliff also had a shallow-brackish water well with a hand pitcher pump to manually fill the toilet and this saved precious fresh water. Later, he put in a second tank to store the brackish water. Variations of this scenario were repeated throughout the Keys. We are presenty (2014) restoring the last known wooden brackish water cistern at the Beauregard Albury house in the center lane of US-1 at MM 92.5. The wooden cistern is seven feet in diameter and sets on a concrete pier along side the usual concrete water off-the-roof cistern.

    There were years when it was a long time between rains. In Tavernier H. S. McKenzie put in a storage tank behind the drug store (Copper Kettle restaurant in 1998) and hauled water from Homestead. He had a tanker truck that could haul 1,000 gallons. Henry Flagler had hauled in millions of gallons of water for his railroad crews and concrete. The railroad also hauled large tank cars of water when needed. It should be pointed out that today there are still homes in the Keys that use only cisterns for fresh water.

    Not much is known of a freshwater desalination plant that was built on the lower portion of Lower Matecumbe Key. It was part of Camp 3 for the World War 1 veterans building the proposed bridge to span the highway water gap between Lower Matecumbe and Grassy Key. Jimmy Woods of Islamorada was a construction worker on the plant and relates how all testing was completed on Friday, August 31, 1935. Turnover and acceptance to the government was to take place on Tuesday after the three-day Labor Day weekend. On Monday, September 2, 1935, the hurricane struck and annihilated the camp. Strangely, the water towers withstood the wind and water of the 1935 hurricane. The two tanks are clearly visible in photos before and after the hurricane.

    With the loss of the railroad because of the 1935 hurricane, the large quantities of fresh water transported by huge railroad tank cars also ceased. In 1937 the Florida Legislature enacted House Bill No. 1683 to create the Florida Keys Aqueduct Commission (FKAC). Governor Fred Cone signed the bill into law on June 11, 1937. Earl Adams was chosen as chairman at the first meeting on March 23, 1938. The following month, L. L. Lee and associates were selected to study and survey the project. The estimate was $2,500,000.

    The Navy Base in Key West was reopened on November 1, 1939 and the early estimate of government use of water was 75,000 gallons a day. The existing Navy's desalination plant produced only 35,000 gallons a day.

    The Navy decided to build a pipeline and Congress appropriated the money with the proviso that it be in conjunction with the State of Florida. This was done with a formal agreement between the Navy and the FKAC on March 29, 1941 with the FKAC paying one third of the cost. In September 1941 a resolution authorized the First National Bank of Miami to issue $1,750,000 of FKAC Water Revenue Bonds. A pipeline from the mainland had been envisioned for decades and the two-thirds federal financing made it a reality.

    The U.S. Navy acquired 353 acres in Florida City on August 18, 1941 for a well site. After many surveys, on April 15, 1942, the Fairbanks Morse and Company started work on two 500-horse-power pumps for $44,862.35. The Navy's first plan was for a 12-inch pipeline but when the water plant indicated it could handle more, the pipe size was changed to 18-inch.

    In the meanwhile, on November 28, 1941, the William Brothers Corporation had begun drilling three 10-inch wells and laying 128 miles of 18-inch pipe from the Florida City site to Key West for $1,719,017.95. Alonzo Cothron did much of the trenching. The pipe was placed under water at 13 of the channel crossings. The pipe was of ductile steel, wrapped with a protective (later fiber glass) and painter silver. In case of an leak, there were isolation valves that could be closed both sides of the leak, emergency crews repair the leak, rewrap and repaint.

    This being 1941, highway travel was still via the Card Sound road. The pipeline followed the Flagler railway route directly across the Everglades. The following February, a new highway by-passing of the existing Card Sound State Road 4A began along the same route. This was shorter in distance. For the first time federal highway funds were used for Overseas Highway construction signaling the change of highway designation to U.S. 1.

    While neither of these projects compared with Flagler's original construction of the Overseas Railway, they were still quite a feat. The original pipeline held about 10 million gallons of water along its path and water took about six days to reach Key West, depending on the rate of flow. The first water to reach Key West through the new pipeline was on September 22, 1942. Later, we will read of public electricity on December 1, 1942. Then the improved and shortened Highway traffic began in 1944.

    The Florida City water was too hard and caused damage to pipes. In 1944, a filtration and water treatment plant was added to the Florida City facility. Usage was also increasing so a pressure booster pump was recommended and installed in Marathon. The Charles Toppino and Sons Company installed the booster plant and the Gabel Construction Company installed the treatment plant, which are still in use today. Usage charts reveal the Upper Keys water consumption made a dynamic increase after World War II.  Alonzo Cothron of Matecumbe was appointed to the board in 1949 and elected chairman of FKAC on June 5, 1952. Basically, the FKAC purchased excess water from the Navy and sold it to the community. Soon the demand exceeded the capability and three booster pumps were installed, one at Cross Key, Long Key and Ramrod Key. The Navy owned all the facilities.

   This isn't the end, as those who lived here during the 18-inch pipe days can well remember. Because of increased use even with the three booster pumps, there was practically no water pressure on weekends; especially those with two-story homes. This brought growth in the Keys almost to a standstill.  In a special bond election on the behalf of the FLA District on October 27, 1953 the citizens rejected a 14-million dollar bond issue by a margin of 1965 - 379. The bond supposedly for a water pipeline to Florida City. Legislation was created to elect five commissioners to a Florida Keys Aqueduct Commission (FKAC) in 1953. An election on February 23, 1954 elected Paul Mesa. Vance Stirrup, William Freeman, Alonzo Cothron and Harry Baker as commissioners in a very small turnout election - 2008 voters. Since funds were denied, the commissioners were without salaries and funds. The Navy produced all the water and services and the aqueduct commission was providing citizens with the surplus water from the Navy.

    Hurricane Donna in 1960 caused the first major outage of the pipeline with multiple breaks. The Navy began studies for a desalination plant in 1964 and the Westinghouse Electric Corporation was awarded the contract to build the plant on Stock Island on March 16, 1966. It opened on June 7, 1967 averaging 2.62 million gallons during a 24-hour test period. In 1971 the Stock Island water plant had to close for 12 days for maintenance. The plant had to close again in 1979 and in the meantime the Florida City plant broke down in 1976. It was quickly repaired, but failed 40 times in the next few months. The next year the pipe sprang a large leak at the very same time that the supplementary desalination plant was out of operation.

    On July 1, 1976 the FKAC was disbanded and the Navy transferred all the land, buildings, wells, pipeline and equipment to the newly established Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA). The sale price was - $7 million. According to Florida Law 76-441 as amended, the FKAA is an autonomous public body corporate and politic and has perpetual existence. In 1976 its directors were elected. Today they are appointed by the governor. 

      There was not enough money to repair the Stock Island plant completely. Monroe County declared a state of emergency and imposed water rationing. The Aqueduct Authority cut the water pressure and requested the governor to issue a tourist advisory. You can imagine how that was received! More water was necessary. 

    The solution did not come easily, as it would be expensive. The Aqueduct Commission as early as 1975 had asked for a Farmers Home Administration (FMHA) loan of $45 million. Investors had to be found for interim funds, because the FMHA monies would not be available until the job was completed. By the time project funding could be approved, all the construction bids had expired and new bids were higher. As we know today, it was finally resolved, but in fairness, the Aqueduct Authority really had to burn the candle at both ends.

     The five FKAA commissioners elected on population percentages apparently were having troubles with confidence of the FMHA because of various actions. State personnel sat in the local board meetings and reported back to Governor Graham. The governor's resolution was to replace the elected FKAA directors with selected members of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). After the 36-inch pipeline was installed, the SFWMD members were gradually phased out and governor appointed the directors from Monroe County. The elected directors never returned to the board.

    Gov. Bob Graham broke ground to start work in 1980 for a 36-inch water line to Tavernier, a 30-inch line to Marathon and a 24-inch line to Upper Sugarloaf Key. Between there and Key West, there remained places where the old 18-inch line was in use until 1998. The work was done with a $63,225,000 Farmers Home Administration bond issue and completed in 1982. 

    The system served the Keys well during Hurricanes Andrew, Georges, Mitch and Irene with no system outages. Taking off the shelf a  management hat that never had been used, the FKAA will begin management of wastewater treatment. The 1998 legislature clearly designated the FKAA as the wastewater authority for unincorporated Florida Keys in Monroe County. Its first operation appeared to have been a central sewer system for Key Largo although it is rural in nature known as the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District (KLWTD). 

      In 1999 a Request for Proposals (RFP) was sent out and there were four respondents. The proposals were evaluated by a Technical Evaluation Panel (TEP) of county, state and federal personnel. The Ogden Wastewater Systems (OWS) were selected. In early 2000 Monroe County authorized contract negotiations with OWS to begin. Somewhere along the line, it was alleged that the TEP had violated the Florida Government in the Sunshine law. 

     The KLWTD had about 15,000 residents with about 13,000 Equivalent Dwelling Units (EDU). An EDU is an entity that uses an average of 167 gallons of water a day. The Ogden contract price was $59 million and with a total project cost of about $83 million. 

     The FKAA has spent about $2 million on a half dozen projects throughout the county in the planning stages. The KLWTD was delayed awaiting resolution of an alleged Florida Sunshine Law violation; therefore, the contract was on hold. Wastewater projects for Marathon, Conch Key and Bay Point remained in planning.

    In 2001 the courts ruled that indeed there was a Sunshine Law violation and the Ogden contract was nullified. Monroe County requested State Representative Sorensen to file legislation for an independent district to oversee wastewater functions for the Island of Key Largo, minus Ocean Reef Club.

     The legislation passed, Governor Bush signed House Bill 471 in May 2002 which specified the election of a five member governing board for the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District. Accompanying legislation amended the FKAA Florida Law 76-441 removing Key Largo from its jurisdiction.

     In November 2002 five Key Largo wastewater commissioners were elected.    

     The problem of sufficient potable water for another 20 years for future Monroe County is being addressed in 2010. It appears that the rather large cost to distribute reclaimed treated wastewater continues to prohibit its use as it is not cost effective except in limited cases. The solution is a $38 million desalination plant at its 360-acre Florida City pumping site. The new desal plant will pump brackish water from a 1,700 foot well from the Floridian Aquifer where the normal freshwater wells pump from 80-wells into the Biscayne Aquifer. The FKAA is limited to withdrawing 17.8 million gallons a day from the Biscayne Aquifer. Existing desal plants at Stock Island and Marathon can process an additional 3 millions gallons a day

    As for wastewater treatment the state mandated 2010 deadline has been extended to 2015.


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