Florida's septic tanks and pollution
A Matter of Money
Port St. Lucie shows the depth of the challenge in converting even a portion of Florida’s more than 2 million septic systems to central sewer service.
Florida’s legendary Mackle brothers and their General Development Corp. founded Port St. Lucie but didn’t build infrastructure like sidewalks and central sewer in much of it. Once the city got control of the water and sewer utility in 1994, it required all new buildings to connect; there are now more than 57,000 customers. The legacy septic systems — on quarter-acre suburban lots — remain an issue. Harbor Branch scientist Brian Lapointe’s research has found septic a serious contributor to the nutrient pollution plaguing Treasure Coast waterways. To get homeowners to convert to the city system, Port St. Lucie offers no-interest loans to cover the $5,757 connection fee. The cost — both the connection fee and monthly bills — are the biggest obstacle to conversion, the city says.
In the last 19 years, Port St. Lucie has converted 8,338 homes with septic to the city system. That’s saved at least 49,136 pounds of nitrogen from going into the Indian River Lagoon. But 17,380 homes remain on septic in the city and its service area, and 5,188 of the homes are within 50 feet of water bodies leading to the St. Lucie River and estuary.
At the present pace of 350 conversions a year, says Mayor Greg Oravec, it will take more than 40 years to convert all 17,380. “That’s why we have to find a way to target and expedite and focus on the areas that are going to make the biggest difference the fastest,” Oravec says. “That’s what I advocate across the state.”
“The different constituencies point their fingers at each other,” Oravec says. Urban residents fault agriculture, agriculture points to coastal residents. “The truth is, I believe it’s all of us. We should own our piece of it. A big part of what makes Florida special is the water.”
Cloudy, with a Small Chance of Funding
Brevard County asked the Legislature this year to fund half the cost of a $23-million project to convert 1,019 homes with “the most polluting septic systems” in the county to central sewer service. The homes annually put 33,500 pounds of nitrogen into the Indian River Lagoon. Thanks to excess nutrients, the 156-mile lagoon, said to be one of the most biologically diverse in North America, has seen algal blooms, unusually high deaths of dolphins and manatees, fish kills and a six-foot-thick layer of muck that already covers nearly 16,000 acres in Brevard and is growing.