Funding sought to reduce septic tank pollution

TALLAHASSEE — Acknowledging that septic tank runoff is a major contributor in the pollution of the Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee River, Gov. Rick Scott Wednesday announced a plan to seek funding to reduce the use of septic tanks in areas that affect those waterways.
On July 6, Governor Scott announced that he will propose additional funding in his 2017-2018 recommended budget to help clean up the Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatchee River.

This proposal will include new funding for a 50/50 matching grant program with local communities surrounding the water bodies affected by algae blooms. If approved by the Legislature, this voluntary program will provide funding to encourage residents to move from septic tanks to sewer systems in order to curb pollution that is currently entering into these water bodies.

Port Mayaca spillway on July 7, 2016, at 10:30 a.m.

Port Mayaca spillway on July 7, 2016, at 10:30 a.m. shows no water moving through the lock.

This proposal will also support local communities to help build wastewater systems to meet the increased demand for wastewater services.

“While the state has continued to step up and invest in important restoration projects to help South Florida waterways, it is clear that more work has to be done. It is up to all of us – the state, Florida’s local communities and the federal government – to work together on long-term solutions to improve the quality of our water. That is why I am going to commit state funding and match it with local contributions so we can work together on efforts to clean up our waters. Septic tank runoff is a major contributor to the pollution in these water bodies and I look forward to working with the Legislature to fund efforts to curb it,” said Gov. Scott.

Governor Scott is currently working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District on the specific details of this proposal which will be part of the Governor’s 2017 Budget Proposal and Legislative package. More details, including specific state funding amount, will be released at a later date.

Researchers have found runoff from septic tanks and sewage systems is a major factor in the algal blooms that have plagued the Treasure Coast in the hot summer months.

“Evidence of sewage-driven eutrophication and harmful algal blooms in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon,” by Brian E. Lapointe, Laura W. Herren, David D. Debortoli and Margaret A. Vogel of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University, was published in 2014 and revised in 2015.

The authors found, “The IRL watersheds have experienced dramatic changes in land use over the past century. Historically, drainage of the IRL basin occurred through slow, meandering streams, creeks, rivers, and wetlands. Since the Drainage Acts of Florida (1916) that permitted the creation of canals to drain uplands for agriculture, reduce flooding, and control mosquitoes, the IRL watershed has nearly tripled its size.”

In an interview this week, Dr. Lapointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, explained “there is a lot of blame to go around.”

Tourism and urban growth add to the nutrient loads, he said.

“There are issues of inadequate infrastructure,” he said. “The state of Florida has far more septic tanks than the national average. This is something that has been used for onsite disposal of sewage to support rapid, cheap growth in Florida over many, many decades.

“We now realize that these hundreds of thousands of septic tanks that we have for example along Florida’s Indian River Lagoon are becoming a major source of nitrogen and phosphorus that are feeding algae, and contributing in a big way to what we are seeing in the St. Lucie Estuary and the lagoon system,” the professor said.

The population in the IRL watershed in 1960 was 250,000. Today it is 1.7 million, the authors pointed out.

In 1990, concerns of increased sewage-driven eutrophication led to the Indian River Lagoon Act of 1990 (IRL Act; Chapter 90-262, Laws of Florida) that required sewage treatment plants to cease discharging into surface waters of the IRL by July 1, 1995.

“Despite the elimination of point-source sewage inputs to the IRL through the IRL Act, non-point source sewage pollution from septic tanks, on-site sewage treatment and disposal systems, (OSTDS) has continued to expand and remains a serious environmental and human health concern,” the report continues.

The researchers conducted a two-year study, with samples collected at 20 sites in the IRL watershed including sites in Brevard, Volusia, St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River and Palm Beach counties. The researchers concluded that continued urban development in the area is making the problem worse, as nitrogen loading from septic tanks and inadequate sewage treatment facilities increases.

“Nutrient pollution is a primary driver of eutrophication and harmful algal blooms (HABs) in estuaries and coastal waters worldwide,” the researchers state.

According to the Florida Department of Health, there are more than 300,000 septic tanks in the five Indian River Lagoon-bordering counties:

• Volusia: 99,542;
• Brevard: 91,349;
• Indian River: 37,035;
• St. Lucie: 44,210; and,
• Martin: 28,544.

According to the Department of Health, in 1970 (the earliest year for which the data is available) there were fewer than 75,000 septic tanks in the five counties that border the Indian River Lagoon:

• Volusia: 28,703;
• Brevard: 20,394;
• Indian River: 8,534;
• St. Lucie: 6,754 ; and,
• Martin: 8,558.

In the Lake Okeechobee area, Okeechobee County has 12,603 septic tanks, as compared to 3,068 in 1970; Palm Beach County has 81,027 septic tanks, as compared to 32,460 in 1970; Hendry County has 10,503 septic tanks, as compared to 2,826 in 1970; Glades County has 5,181 septic tanks, as compared to 1,056 in 1970; and Highlands County has 36,653 septic tanks, as compared to 10,227 in 1970.

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