Coastal cities pump wastewater into the ocean

A running gag in the Disney move “Finding Nemo” was that “All drains lead to the ocean.” The reality isn’t so appealing as the story of little clown fish trying to escape from an aquarium.

OKEECHOBEE — They call it “outfall,” a polite term for pumping treated wastewater into rivers or the ocean.

In 1986, there were 46 sewer plants along the 156 miles of the Indian River lagoon, discharging wastewater into the estuary. The Indian River Lagoon Act, passed by the Florida Legislature in 1990, banned the outfall of wastewater into the lagoon by 1996, according to March 2018 Marine Pollution Bulletin article “Widespread sewage pollution of the Indian River Lagoon system, Florida (USA) resolved by spatial analyses of macroalgal biogeochemistry,” by Peter J.Barile.

But … there’s a loophole.

“Although routine surface water discharge is no longer permitted for most WWTPs (wastewater treatment plants) adjacent to the Lagoon, wet weather emergency discharge is permitted for 90 days per year. Consequently, significant wet weather discharges of nearly 15 million liters (3.96 million gallons) were reported for the Palm Bay-Turkey Creek WWTP during the 2014 sample period. These permitted emergency discharges are not always reported in official State of Florida spill reports, and reporting is not required by the federal EPA,” Mr. Barile wrote. “Across the U.S., over 3,200 billion liters of effluent are discharged annually into adjacent surface waters in emergency conditions.”

The 1990 Indian River Lagoon Act only addressed the outfall into that waterway. In 2008, Florida Legislature passed a law prohibiting construction or expansion of all ocean outfalls and requiring all wastewater utilities using ocean outfalls for disposal of treated wastewater to recycle 60 percent of those discharges by 2018, and cease using the outfalls by 2025.

According to Florida Department of Environmental Protection, at the time of the 2008 legislation, six ocean outfall pipes in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward counties were discharging more than 300 million gallons of treated sewage a year. That flow is supposed to be significantly decreased by the end of this year and eliminated completely by 2025.

With the exception of Miami-Dade, the utilities are on track to meet those deadlines.

But once again … there’s a loophole in the Florida law.

The statute was amended in 2013 to allow continued use of the outfalls for “managing peak sewage flows not to exceed 5 percent of the annual baseline flows.”

The 2018 version of the Florida Statutes states: “The construction of new ocean outfalls for domestic wastewater discharge and the expansion of existing ocean outfalls for this purpose, along with associated pumping and piping systems, are prohibited. Each domestic wastewater ocean outfall shall be limited to the discharge capacity specified in the department permit authorizing the outfall in effect on July 1, 2008, which discharge capacity shall not be increased. Maintenance of existing, department-authorized domestic wastewater ocean outfalls and associated pumping and piping systems is allowed.”

Those content to allow some outfall discharge into the ocean claim the lines go far enough out into the ocean that the partially-treated wastewater will not be enough volume to cause any environmental damage. But there is research to show outfall does damage coral reefs.

In a 2011 study, researchers from Rollins College in Florida and the University of Georgia identified human sewage as the source of the coral-killing pathogen that causes white pox disease of Caribbean elkhorn coral. Once the most common coral in the Caribbean, elkhorn coral was listed for protection under the United States Endangered Species Act in 2006, largely due to white pox disease. Their findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE.

In order to determine a source for the pathogen, researchers collected and analyzed human samples from the wastewater treatment facility in Key West and samples from animals such as Key deer and seagulls. While Serratia marcescens was found in these other animals, genetic analyses showed that only the strain from human sewage matched the strain found in white pox diseased corals on the reef.

Another problem with outfall pipes: Sometimes they leak and wastewater leaves the pipe close to the shoreline. Even worse, leaks can be undetected for months. In July 2017, the environmental group Miami Waterkeepers discovered and outfall pipe that was supposed to convey the wastewater 3.6 miles out into the ocean, was leaking in shallow water about three-quarters of a mile from Tony Fisher Island. The pipe had apparently been leaking, undetected, for at least a year. According to the Miami Waterkeepers report, the utility company had not inspected the outfall pipe in a decade.

On the Gulf Coast, the City of Fort Myers dumps treated wastewater into the Caloosahatchee River. According to the City of Fort Myers’ own website: “The City of Fort Myers Wastewater Treatment Division consists of 2 regional Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facilities. The Central AWWT Facility is located at 1501 Raleigh St. and is designed to treat 11 million gallons of wastewater per day. The South AWWT Facility, located at 1618 Matthew Drive, is designed to treat 12 million gallons per day. The existing Bardenpho treatment systems were put on line in 1985, replacing the old sewer plants at both facilities. These waste water treatment plants treat wastewater from all of the City of Fort Myers and much of Lee County.

“The majority of the treated effluent from the two plants is discharged to the Caloosahatchee River. A portion of the Central Plant effluent is diverted and treated to reclaimed water standards for reuse in the community,” the website states.

On Aug. 31, 2018 Fort Myers and Cape Coral reached a tentative agreement to construct a pipeline beneath the Caloosahatchee River to transport reclaimed water from Fort Myers to Cape Coral for use in irrigation. Projected completion of the project is 2023. The project will require a $24 million upgrade to Fort Myers water treatment plant as well as a $13 million pipeline. Apparently the treated wastewater now being dumped in the river has not been treated sufficiently for it to meet the standards for watering lawns in Cape Coral. Cape Coral recycles all of its own wastewater, and still periodically faces water shortages.

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