Florida's septic tanks and pollution
Certainly, the state’s agriculture industry likes Lapointe’s message. Chamber CEO Mark Wilson acknowledges agriculture “is definitely a piece of what’s contributing to water issues in Florida. Like a lot of issues in Florida, there are a lot of pieces.” Important to the chamber and Florida, he says, is that by 2030 Florida will need 20% more usable water as the state adds 4.5 million people, 50 million more tourists and builds an economy larger than Mexico’s. “For one of the leading chambers of commerce in the United States to go on the record and say we have a big septic tank problem in our state, there’s a risk to that. We would have preferred to hear there was a cheaper solution,” Wilson says. But, he adds, “we know one of the biggest things that could stop Florida in its tracks is water.”
Lapointe says the state should prohibit septic systems for most new development and ensure central sewage systems remove nitrogen along with other nutrients. Lapointe often cites an American Society of Civil Engineers report that gave Florida a “C” in wastewater infrastructure — in part for its reliance on septic and in part for central sewer system issues. The society says Florida will have to spend $18 billion on that infrastructure over the next 20 years, but a massive improvement project will be worth it, Lapointe says. He notes that Sarasota Bay and Tampa Bay, once plagued by rotting algae and dead seagrass, turned around once governments took steps to cut off the nitrogen flowing into them from sewer and septic systems.
Since the Great Recession ended, installation of new septic systems in Florida has ticked upward to 13,314 in 2017 but remains far below the peak of 72,578 installed in 1978. The issue is what to do about the estimated 2.6 million septic systems — 12% of the U.S. total — in use already. The state Department of Health says 30% of Floridians are on septic and that such systems are “safe and effective” ways to get rid of waste.
Roxanne Groover, executive director of the septic industry Florida Onsite Wastewater Association, heard Lapointe speak to legislators in January. “I’m not saying he’s not a very good scientist,” she says, but she objects to what she terms his “call to panic.” Central systems have nitrogen-reduction issues of their own and other failings. she says, and the septic industry has advanced nitrogen- removal systems for homes. “It’s important to everybody to know there are some options,” Groover says.
Lapointe says governments must prioritize converting tanks near bodies of water that are algal bloom hot spots. “We’re never going to replace every septic tank in Florida,” he says.
Looking ahead, Lapointe, now 68, says he has no plans to retire. There are plenty of water issues to study, including some that don’t originate in Florida but affect the state nonetheless. This year, a team of researchers from the University of South Florida, Georgia Tech and Lapointe published a study in Science showing that Sargassum, the nuisance brown seaweed floating onto Florida’s beaches this year, originates in a 20-million- ton, 8,850-kilometer bloom that runs from Africa to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s fed by natural nutrients from Africa and human-caused deforestation and fertilizer use in the Amazon.
“It has become the biggest algae bloom on the planet,” Lapointe says. “These belts are so big now we need to use satellites to monitor them.”