The Florida Keys are fast on their way to becoming a paradise lost.
There is no gentle way to say it: One of the most treasured marine ecosystems in the United States is literally being flushed down the toilet.
Near-shore tropical waters that once were sparkling turquoise are now milky green or, in the worst areas, the color of pea soup. Scientists warn against swimming close to shore, particularly in canals that have become long fingers of stagnant, lifeless water.
With 80,000 permanent residents throughout the Keys and 2 million tourists each year, the surrounding marine environment is being stressed beyond its limits. Some scientists warn that as near-shore water quality continues to decline, the region's world-famous ocean reefs will also decline.
"We are at a very serious point where we have to either restore this system quickly or we are going to end up losing it," says Debra Harrison of the World Wildlife Fund.
Sewage is the problem. Most of the Keys do not have modern sewage-treatment plants. Local officials and residents have long resisted making the tough and expensive decisions necessary to protect the quality of the sea water in and around the Keys.
But that may be changing. Spurred on by a barrage of alarming scientific studies, officials in the Keys say they are now ready to build the kind of waste-water treatment infrastructure that should have been in place more than a quarter century ago.
There's just one catch, they say. They can't afford to do it without financial help from the rest of the country.
"We can do this. We can make a fundamental impact in water quality," says commissioner Nora Williams of Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys, "but we simply do not have the resources to make it happen."
Ms. Williams was elected last November after campaigning on the water-quality issue. She's recently traveled to Washington with the county administrator to ask federal officials and lawmakers for help.
"We need the rest of the nation to understand all of what is going on in south Florida and the importance of the ecosystem. This is the only coral reef in the United States," says Paul Dye of the Nature Conservancy. "This is not an impossible challenge. It is only an expensive one."
Tough fight in Washington
Analysts say it will likely be a tough campaign to persuade members of Congress, each with pet environmental projects in their own districts, to dole out $500 million or more to help save the area from a problem Keys residents and officials created themselves and ignored for years. In addition, south Florida is already the location of the most expensive environmental restoration project ever undertaken - the $7 billion effort to protect and restore the Florida Everglades.
The water-quality problem in the Keys is itself a major environmental challenge on par with the Everglades project. But the Everglades project enjoys the advantage of national public and political support, and guaranteed local, state, and federal funding.
In contrast, the Keys have good intentions and a noble cause, but no established source of local funding and a poor track record in implementing meaningful environmental safeguards.
"The Keys are way behind the times," says Bill Kruczynski, a water-quality specialist with the US Environmental Protection Agency. "We have holes in the ground that people are flushing their toilets into - and have been since the 1940s and 1950s."
It isn't just the bacteria from sewage that concerns officials. There are also nutrients, like phosphorous and nitrogen, that feed water-clouding algae. In addition, the rock underlying the Keys is coral and as porous as Swiss cheese, according to one scientist.
"One reason that a lot of people in the Keys don't believe there are problems with waste-water disposal down here is that we don't have sewage backups," says Jack Teague, an environmental specialist with the Monroe County Health Department.
Researchers conducted a test that proved why there are no backups. It also illustrates why water-quality problems are growing.
"What we did is put tracer organisms into a toilet and flushed it down," says Mr. Teague. "Within hours, we could detect the organisms in the canal. Within a few more hours they were in near-shore waters. And within 12 hours they were found at the reef."
Scientists disagree on the effect of the waste water on the coral reefs. Some say the ecosystem is under stress, but it is unclear how much of the problem may be a result of natural phenomena, such as ocean warming. Others say the reefs are clearly in decline, in large part from high nutrient levels from untreated or poorly treated sewage.
Only Key West and tiny Key Colony Beach near Marathon have modern sewage-treatment plants. Most other locations in the Keys rely on small-scale treatment facilities. In addition there are 20,000 septic tanks and 4,000 cesspits, which are basically holes in the ground covered with concrete slabs. Some houses don't even have a cesspit. Like most of the thousands of houseboats, the waste pipe leads directly from toilet to sea.
Price of acknowledging the problem
Among year-round Keys residents, it is hard to find anyone who doesn't agree that there is a serious water-quality problem. But many folks are reluctant to acknowledge that sewage is the main problem, because better sewage treatment will be expensive.
By some estimates, high-technology systems designed to eliminate both bacteria and nutrients can cost an individual homeowner $8,000 to $20,000 - far beyond the means of most Keys residents. The average income in the Keys is $24,899, and there is a large population of retirees living on far less.
Some residents live in fear that one day there will be a knock at the door and a government sewage inspector will order the house to meet impossibly high standards within a certain period or face a daily fine. Such tactics would drive many residents back to the mainland, or worse, into bankruptcy.
"I don't have $12,000 to $20,000 [to upgrade the septic system]," says Nellie Lanier, a retiree who lives with her disabled husband on Conch Key.
Her neighbor, Charles Fulford Jr., says most Keys residents want to solve the water problem, but few can afford to upgrade their sewage-treatment systems.
"We are not fighting the upgrade. We're not saying leave us alone, let us pollute. We're fighting for our financial lives," says Mr. Fulford, a commercial fisherman who believes the federal government should help residents by offering low-interest loans payable over 30 years.
Others are worried that fixing the sewage problem will only increase other problems.
"Water quality is not just people's bathrooms. It is tourism and boats - it is overpopulation of the Keys," says Gerald Ward, a commercial lobsterman.
"They are going to build more hotels and more motels and push all these little people out," he says, motioning toward his quiet, palm-shaded neighborhood of fisherman and retirees. "I bet you come back here in 10 years and not a single one of these old buildings will be here. It will be a gated complex [of luxury homes]."
Others agree that sewage isn't the only problem, but it is a problem that can and must be addressed.
"The Florida Keys are the only marine system in the United States where we have the habitat, the diverse marine life, the endangered species, and the only living coral reef," says Charles Causey, a longtime water-quality activist in the Keys. "There are so many natural systems here that we don't have any more of, and that is certainly worth protecting," he says. "Not for the Keys, or the State of Florida, but for the world."