The Importance of Water Quality

By: Emryn Hogue

Photo: Shawn Verne

August 2021

Water is essential to all life on Earth. Necessary for the survival of all living species, water plays a significant role in human life, from our health to the economy. By preserving and supporting good water quality we benefit the environment, public health, and the protection of water resources for future generations. This Water Quality Month, we’re sharing how protecting water quality in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is crucial to preserving the clear waters, expansive reefs, diversity of marine species, and overall way of life in the Keys.

Water Quality Threats

Water quality is a complex issue, impacted by pollution, weather, tides, human activities, and many other factors. In the Keys, threats to water quality are categorized as local, regional, or global in nature. Local threats are issues like stormwater runoff, wastewater, organic debris, sedimentation, and harmful vessel discharges. Regional threats are associated with water quality disturbances originating from outside the Keys, such as from the Gulf of Mexico and South Florida. The Florida Keys are connected to these areas by currents and tides, which can move polluted water into the sanctuary. Globally, increasing temperatures and ocean acidification impact our waters, while sea level rise and changing storm and rainfall patterns may increase runoff of various land-based pollutants into nearshore waters.

dark, turbulent water flows out of an inlet and mixes with clear, blue ocean water
Water discharges from land can carry sediment and chemicals into the ocean creating plumes like this one at the Boca Raton Inlet in southeast Florida. Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

The Water Quality Protection Program

To ensure the long term protection of water quality in the Florida Keys, the Water Quality Protection Program was established as part of legislation that created Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This program is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Florida in partnership with NOAA which oversees the National Marine Sanctuary System. Interagency and stakeholder representatives work collaboratively within the program to protect and restore good water quality for the health and survival of all that rely on it. The program uses comprehensive monitoring and research to recommend corrective actions, and works to educate locals and visitors about what they can do to protect water quality.

a researcher wearing waders stands in shallow water holding a sonde to take water quality measurements
Scientists use many tools and techniques to sample water quality. Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

The Water Quality Protection Program and its partners have had many achievements. Wastewater is a major contributor to declines in water quality. Poorly treated and untreated human sewage is particularly problematic, as it can release excess nutrients and chemicals into the water. This can include toxic and harmful algal blooms which are dangerous to aquatic life, humans, livestock, and pets. Recognizing this major threat to Keys’ water quality, the Water Quality Protection Program provided oversight for upgrades to a central sewer system and the highest level of wastewater treatment practices to prevent contamination of local waters. Tens of thousands of septic tanks, illegal cesspits, and ineffective small treatment units have been eliminated, and approximately 41,075 or 94% of all dwelling units in Monroe County have been upgraded to a central sewer system.

In addition, the program advocates to increase vessel pumpout services, ensuring proper waste disposal is available to those living aboard moored or anchored boats within the Keys. The discharge of any kind of vessel sewage, treated or untreated, is prohibited in the waters of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. There are pump out facilities available at marinas and mooring fields throughout the Keys as well as free pump out services that can be arranged for anchored recreational vessels.

a sign that says pump out here
Vessel pump out services are available throughout the sanctuary at marinas and mooring fields. Photo: NOAA

The Water Quality Protection Program also funds research and monitoring programs which track the long-term status of water quality, coral reef health, and seagrass ecosystem health. This data is vital for understanding how these resources are changing over time, identifying emerging threats, and informing policy, management, and restoration decisions.

Water Quality and Restoration Efforts in South Florida

In addition to the local water quality improvements coordinated by the Water Quality Protection Program, other regional restoration efforts are important for water quality in the Florida Keys.

Florida’s Everglades are the focus of the world’s largest intergovernmental watershed restoration effort. The Everglades watershed is twice the size of New Jersey and spans from the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes north of Lake Okeechobee, through Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, to the coastal waters and coral reefs of the Keys.

Everglades restoration involves numerous projects to restore the quantity, quality, timing, and distribution of freshwater across South Florida. These efforts are intended to reverse decades of environmental decline and ensure drinking water and other water-related needs for over eight million people, numerous industries, and diverse natural habitats in the region. The restoration and protection of the Everglades stands to have a significant impact on South Florida’s water quality.

aerial image of a mangrove fringed shoreline
Protection and restoration of the Everglades is important for water quality and marine resources in the Florida Keys. Photo: Jack Fishman
soft corals and zooanthids on a shallow reef in clear water
Coral reefs are dependent on clean and clear waters for their growth and survival. Photo: NOAA

Given the importance of Everglades restoration to Keys’ water quality, in 2020, the sanctuary’s Water Quality Protection Program and Sanctuary Advisory Council jointly initiated the creation of a new working group to improve local awareness of these regional efforts. The Florida Keys and South Florida Ecosystem Connectivity Team helps educate Keys’ stakeholders about Everglades restoration and facilitate engagement in regional issues of importance to water quality within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Additionally, in 2019, NOAA launched Mission: Iconic Reefs, an unprecedented effort to restore seven iconic coral reef sites in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. While separate from the larger Everglades restoration effort, these activities are complementary, specifically targeting the furthest downstream habitats within the Everglades watershed. Clean and clear water is important for the growth and survival of coral and other marine species. By protecting water quality, we increase the likelihood of success for these important restoration efforts and other management activities.

How can you help?

There are many actions individuals can take to help protect water quality in the Keys.

  • Recognize that you are in a special place with sensitive habitats and educate yourself about what actions you should and shouldn’t take to protect water quality and marine resources. This interactive map provides information about regulations and zones in the sanctuary.

  • Boaters can utilize proper containers, catch-pans and spill-containment basins, and proper disposal techniques to prevent liquids such as gasoline, motor oil, hydraulic fluids, cleaning products, and other chemicals from entering the water. Similar principles apply on land as these pollutants can easily soak into the ground and enter nearshore waters.

  • Get involved by attending Water Quality Protection Program meetings. This program is an ongoing effort to improve water quality in the Keys with evolving priorities and a continuing need for public engagement. Only through collaboration can we best protect and preserve our waters.

Emryn Hogue is a virtual intern with Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and an undergraduate student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.