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How Do the Florida Keys and Key West Get Their Water?

Maybe nothing is more associated with the Florida Keys than water – it surrounds the island chain and is inescapable if you are on any of the Keys. Despite the ocean, freshwater in the Keys is a rarity – so rare, in fact, that the islands are almost entirely devoid of natural freshwater sources. There are no freshwater rivers or streams. Save for a few small depressions that fill with rainwater, there are no freshwater ponds or lakes in the Keys, either.

Over time, many of these few minor sources of rainwater dried up or were destroyed by development. With over 100,000 residents during the winter months, this lack of water poses a significant problem for anyone who makes the Keys home, or just vacations there.

Prior to 1941, the primary way residents and visitors to the Keys obtained water was through the use of cisterns. The cistern collected the abundant rainfall of the islands and usually provided ample water for residents. During World War II, with more people in the islands for war training and defense of the Gulf of Mexico, the ability to ensure enough water for the residents of the Keys became a serious

impediment. To solve this burgeoning problem, the Navy and the state of Florida worked together to solve the problem of a lack of freshwater by constructing a pipeline from the mainland to Key West.

As originally constructed, the water pipeline to Key West held ten million gallons (38 million liters) of water. From its starting point on the mainland to Key West, it took six days for the water to travel the full length of the pipeline. Unfortunately for those at the end of the pipeline, water pressure after days of travel was less-than-ideal. Practically, this meant there was little to no water pressure on any second floor in Key West. Even after adding booster stations to the pipeline, which both increased water pressure and shortened the time it took to get water to Key West, second-floor water pressure was nearly non-existent for years.

Thankfully for today’s residents and visitors to the islands, the water pipeline now efficiently gets water to Key West, and even the tallest buildings can get water to their upper floors with plenty of pressure. There are storage facilities for freshwater along the way, should the pipeline ever be disrupted. There are also two desalination plants that can become an emergency source of three million gallons (11.3 million liters) of water per day for the Keys. You can sometimes see the pipeline along the side of the highway, such as when it crosses Grassy Key or along the underside of the bridges. Look for it on your next trip to the Keys!


If you want to learn more about the water pipe and the Florida Keys, check out 101 Travel Bits: The Florida Keys & Overseas Highway and 101 Travel Bits: Key West, both of which are available now at Amazon.

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