Price to replace Florida Keys water pipes? $10 million a mile, utility director says

The head of the Florida Keys’ water utility said earlier this week that the cost to replace all the pipes in the aging system would be more than $1 billion.

The statement he made on a Sunday morning local news show comes the same month the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority had three water main breaks in one week, temporarily reducing supply and pressure to thousands of homes and businesses south of the Upper Keys Village of Islamorada all the way to Key West.

The leaks also forced the utility to reduce its flow from its mainland source in Florida City, which depleted water stored in tanks buried up and down U.S. 1, Greg Veliz, the FKAA’s executive director said on Local 10’s This Week in South Florida.

“We tried to back feed out of those tanks in order to keep everyone in water, and by the time of the third [pipe break], we were out,” Veliz told the Glenna Milberg, the show’s host.


To help replenish the storage tanks, the FKAA has been asking customers to conserve water usage. The utility made the request to emails to customers and by placing signs along U.S. 1.

A sign in the median of U.S. 1 in Key Largo Tuesday, March 14, 2023, urges residents and visitors in the Florida Keys to conserve water.
A sign in the median of U.S. 1 in Key Largo Tuesday, March 14, 2023, urges residents and visitors in the Florida Keys to conserve water.

Water main breaks aren’t the only issue with FKAA’s system frustrating Keys residents. On Wednesday, the utility sent out an alert that an air release valve broke on Big Pine Key in the Lower Keys. To make repairs, the utility said it would be “choking down the main, which will make customers in the area feel like they have low pressure to possibly no water.”

The underground pipes throughout the Keys’ system are more than 40 years old, and Veliz said there are bound to be more breaks, which usually means traffic is tied up on U.S. 1, the only major road that wends through the island chain, for up to 12 hours.

They need replacing, but so far the only pending project is replacing five miles of pipe in Islamorada. The $42 million project is scheduled to begin in April and be finished in February 2025.

It’s being funded with $35 million in grants and $7 million through low-interest loans, according to the FKAA.

There is no other money as of now to pay for the rest of the 130 miles of pipe, and Veliz said the cost to replace the old pipes is between $7 and $10 million per mile.

“I will not see the end of that project,” Veliz said.

As the pipes continues to age, the Keys are seeing an ever-increasing number of tourists, vacation renters and residents. A bill is also making its way through the Legislature that would allow the building of 1,300 more affordable housing units in the Keys, raising questions of how the struggling infrastructure will be able to keep up.

“That is one of many issues that make the continued effort to add more development to an already over-developed string of islands so ill-advised,” said Richard Grosso, an environmental attorney representing several residents trying to block passage of the bill, HB 627. “The Keys are struggling to find the money and capacity to keep existing roads, homes and businesses dry and keep the water running, and facing dangerous evacuation times just when hurricanes are getting less predictable and intense.”