Florida's Water: A Truly Septic Problem

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), there are approximately 1.6 million onsite sewage and disposal systems currently in use in Florida. Septic tanks are appropriate for sewage treatment in some rural areas, however, problems arise when there are too many septic tanks in one location, when they are on plots of land less than an acre, in close proximity to bodies of water, and in loose soil.

There has been a major statewide focus on the impacts of septic systems, and the necessity to begin the transition to sewer, especially in highly populated areas that don't have the means for that type of sewage treatment. When nitrates and phosphates seep into groundwater from the onsite sewage and disposal systems, they make their way into the watershed, resulting in small- and large-scale algae blooms. The septic seeping has a trickle-down effect, initially impacting the appearance of watersheds, then destructing the ecosystem—negatively affecting our surface waters and causing economic damage.

Aggressive Approach to Solving a Statewide Concern

The Florida Springs and Protection Act that was recently voted on and passed by the state is a key step towards addressing the issues with water. The act requires the FDEP, in coordination with the five water management districts, to establish rules and guidelines that will help implement prevention plans to monitor water levels at springs to make sure they don't fall below the established minimum levels. They must also adopt basin management action plans that will ensure pollutant levels in the springs are below established total maximum daily loads. The FDEP, the Department of Health, local governments, and local public and private wastewater utilities will need to develop onsite sewage treatment and disposal system remediation plans for a spring if the FDEP finds that the systems within a priority area contribute at least 20 percent of nonpoint source nitrogen pollution.

The adoption of this act shows that the state is motivated to tackle these water issues. However, actually implementing these projects includes locating funding for the transition to sewage and gaining local support and participation. There is an understanding within the state that there is a significant amount of water pollution, but when push comes to shove, most are reluctant to make the switch and connect to a sewer line without some sort of aid.

Funding and Local Support

Local officials are faced with the dilemma of whether or not they should mandate sewage connections. Creating local connection programs will assist in recruiting support from willing homeowners. Rather than focus on the payment of connections, it needs to be on actually achieving connections so people can send their untreated water to treatment plants. This in turn provides a revenue source back to the county or city to treat wastewater, reduces the nitrates and phosphates being discharged into our watersheds, and provides reuse water for other applications.

We can save homeowners money by utilizing the funding from the various acts and bills the state has created that specifically allocates money for projects such as these. The Legacy Florida bill, effective as of July 1, 2016, appropriates $50 million annually for Florida springs over the next 20 years. This is one avenue local governments can use for monetary support. The FDEP and the water management districts also offer funding that cities and counties can apply for. Innovative tactics that can be used to persuade homeowners include subsidizing the fees associated with the septic to sewer connection transition and implementing an amnesty period where homeowners do not have to pay their connection fee or water bill.

These problems associated with water and wastewater infrastructure need to be addressed at the local level in order to gradually see positive results throughout the state. By 2050, Florida's population is expected to double—rising to 40 million. It's vital for the ecosystem, economy, and overall well-being of the state to proactively protect and preserve our water—for the present and the future.

  • Cliff Wilson
    Cliff Wilson
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