Boat sewage pumpout costs likely to be assessed on the boaters

A boat-pumpout program launched to protect Florida Keys nearshore waters from sewage discharges stands as a model for the state, but state funding for the program is drying up.

Money from the state's Clean Vessel Act "dropped significantly this year," Monroe County Marine Resources administrator Rich Jones told county commissioners Wednesday at their Key Largo meeting.

Local contractor Pumpout USA "had a lot of trouble making ends meet this year," Jones said.

Monroe County in 2015 will spend about $367,000 on the program, with the state funding around $319,000 toward an estimated 18,000 vessel sewage pumpouts.

The county's share works out to $21.10 per pumpout. Overall, average total per-pumpout cost is about $40, down from $55.70 in 2014.

The state Department of Environmental Protection now seeks "throughout the state to build sustainable pumpout programs, using Monroe County's pumpout program as a model," Jones said in a report to commissioners.

To reduce the number of illegal sewage discharges in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary waters, the pumpouts are offered free of charge to boaters. However, commissioners have urged staff to work toward some type of fee system for boaters. 

"I am concerned about the long-term viability of free pumpouts," Commissioner Heather Carruthers said. "We can't count on the state for anything."

Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said her office receives "a constant supply of comments" from land residents "who pay for sewage" while anchored liveaboard residents "are not paying taxes or rent or anything else, and we're paying for their sewage."

"I like doing something to keep sewage from going in the bay or ocean but sooner or later we're going to get on the stick and make them pay," Murphy said.

Pumpouts are mandatory inside local managed anchoring areas, where Jones said compliance "is close to 100 percent."

Commissioners asked about extending the pumpout requirement to all nearshore Keys waters, but questions about jurisdiction and enforcement were cited as potential obstacles. Staff is "looking at any and all alternatives," Jones said.

In other issues at Wednesday's meeting at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center, the commission:

  • Agreed to schedule a workshop to review the county's canal-restoration pilot program.

About $6 million has been committed to finished and pending systems to test systems intended to improve water quality.

"We need more extensive discussion," Mayor Danny Kolhage said. "It's hard to wrap my brain around what we've done and what we have left to do."

Cost estimates to correct all the Keys' problem canals run from $100 million to $700 million, Kolhage said. "When you start talking about that kind of money, this is a serious issue."

  • Passed a number of federal technical standards to ensure the Keys remain eligible for federal flood insurance. Currently the Keys have 15,739 flood policies in effect but projected rising premium costs over the next decade could become unaffordable, Carruthers said.