December 8, 2019

Water pollution

Florida's septic tanks and pollution

Mike Vogel | 10/25/2019

In counties along the lagoon, says Sen. Debbie Mayfield (R-Indialantic), nearly half of homes are on septic, a “significant source” of nutrients making a large contribution to water quality problems.

This year, Mayfield introduced a Clean Waterways bill to establish a matching grant program for upgrading central sewer system treatment and for septic tank conversions and upgrades. The bill died in committee, but Mayfield plans to try again next session. She wants to see septic tank regulation moved from the Department of Health to the state Department of Environmental Protection. She says septic might be the only option in some places in Florida, but “we do need to move away from septic tank systems in order to address these harmful algal blooms at the source.”

The state already can restrict new septic installation near certain bodies of water. It’s also looked at requiring more frequent septic tank inspections. (According to the state, only 1% of septic tank homeowners hire a contractor to maintain them regularly. The rest only call for service when tanks fail. Even properly functioning tanks remove on average only 30% to 40% of nitrogen.)

The state already has some programs to fund septic and central systems upgrades.

As Brevard’s request shows, converting homes near delicate Florida water bodies from septic will be expensive, let alone converting the state’s entire 2.6 million septic tanks. Brevard’s request was one of 29 the Legislature received for conversion projects. The Legislature funded eight for a total of $4.15 million. Brevard got $500,000.

Environmental Task Forces

Nitrogen and phosphorus occur naturally in water and are needed for healthy plants. But excess amounts that make their way into Florida waters from septic systems, wastewater plants, lawn and agriculture fertilizing and stormwater runoff can produce algal blooms, some of which can lead to fish kills, human health impacts, health advisories and beach and water closures.

This year, the state created a Blue Green Algae Task Force under the Department of Environmental Protection to prioritize projects to remove nutrients from Lake Okeechobee and its downstream estuaries and generally improve water quality. That task force joins the older Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force, also known as the Red Tide Task Force, which dates to 1997 after a red tide killed manatees. Under the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, that task force finished its work in 2002 but was revived this year to study current policies and research and make recommendations. The state recently dedicated $15 million for red tide research by Mote Marine Laboratory.

 

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