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Florida's septic tanks and pollution

Florida isn’t paying enough attention to the role of septic tanks in fueling algal blooms throughout Florida, says Brian Lapointe. But getting rid of septic systems will be expensive — about 30% of Floridians rely on them.

Brian Lapointe came to Florida, to Key West, in the 1950s to take a boat to visit his grandfather in Cuba. Turquoise waters. Fishing boats. “It changed my life forever,” says the Massachusetts native.

Water seemed a backdrop everywhere. At the time, the popular TV program Sea Hunt, with fictional diver Mike Nelson, was set in Florida. Jacques Cousteau roamed the seas. Lapointe, then not yet 10, was sold. “I want to move to Florida and become a marine scientist,” he recalls thinking. “I want to save the oceans.”

He’s attempting it — one toilet at a time — as a scientist with the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce on the Indian River Lagoon. Toilets are a recurring presence in his research — work that challenges assumptions about who’s to blame for Florida’s water troubles and whether certain Everglades restoration projects are likely to succeed.

Florida, unfortunately, has been fertile ground for algae specialists like Lapointe — from regular blue-green algae outbreaks in Lake Okeechobee and the estuaries of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, to red tide on both coasts and fecal contamination. The state has two task forces working on algal bloom issues (“Environmental Task Forces,” page 73). It’s a national problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year listed 23 states with algae-caused beach closures or health warning advisories.

Those problems lay far in the future when Lapointe’s family relocated to West Palm Beach in 1960. Lapointe took up fishing, surfing and diving, then returned to New England to study marine science at Boston University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Nutrient chemistry fascinated him, and he worked with his hero in the field, the late John Ryther, who had shown how nitrogen feeds algal blooms in saltwater. The danger of too much nitrogen in marine environments has shaped Lapointe’s research ever since.

In the mid-1970s, Ryther and Lapointe came to Harbor Branch, now an arm of Florida Atlantic University. Walt Disney World had opened just a few years before. ‘We were poised for rapid population growth and increasing tourism. More toilets flushing, right?” Lapointe says. Some municipal systems simply dumped human waste into water bodies. During that same decade, the number of septic systems being installed in Florida peaked. From the Keys northward on both coasts, Lapointe says, excess nutrients such as nitrogen were beginning to affect coastal waters.

Lapointe earned a master’s in environmental engineering from the University of Florida and a doctorate from the University of South Florida. His dissertation was on algal blooms in Tampa Bay. In 1987, Monroe County, home of the Florida Keys, funded his first septic tank impact study, the first of many he’s done. He found that runoff from septic systems — ill-suited to the Keys hard coral soil — affected the island waters, the reef and Florida Bay. It took 30 years and $1 billion for the Keys to move all of its residents from septic to centralized sewer service.

Over those decades, Lapointe has continued to gather data on the effects of nitrogen — regardless of the source — on Florida’s waters.

A common narrative blames agriculture for Florida’s troubled waters, but between 2011 and 2015 Lapointe studied the Indian River Lagoon and linked algal blooms there to nitrogen from septic tanks, a “significant and largely ignored” source of nitrogen pollutants to the lagoon. In coastal counties impacted by blooms, he explains, many septic systems fail to meet code requirements for distance between their drain fields and the water table underneath them. The problem is particularly acute during rainy seasons. Rising seas will only exacerbate it, he says.

His study was “a game-changer,” he maintains. “Up to that point, everyone thought it was simply fertilizer runoff and the farmers.” Agriculture isn’t the enemy, he says, it’s us — homeowners.

There’s a dispute about how much of an enemy. Gary Goforth, a water resource engineer and former chief consulting engineer to the regional water regulator, the South Florida Water Management District, says Lapointe overstates the role of septic in estuary problems. Septic contributes less than 10% of the nitrogen loading the estuary, with 85% coming from runoff from farmland and from Lake Okeechobee, Goforth says.

And nitrogen is but one problem in the estuary. Others in a long list include blue-green algae flushed down from the lake, pesticides and excess phosphorous. Septic contributes negligible amounts of some and none of others. But, Goforth says, “we’re all part of the problem. I don’t take to pointing fingers at one industry or another. We’re all contributing to the phosphorus and nitrogen pollution in the state. I want to certainly give him credit for raising statewide awareness.”

Septic’s role in pollution varies depending on the specific water body. Half the septic systems in Florida are in the springs region north of I-4, reports Robert Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute. Some 70% of the state’s springs are contaminated by nutrients, but there are numerous sources, Knight says, including agriculture and septic tanks.

Edie Widder, scientist and co-founder of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association in Fort Pierce, an active monitor of Indian River Lagoon health, says it would be wise to prohibit new septic systems where possible but adds that converting septic to central sewer systems is no panacea. “We have a lot of leaking sewer systems,” she says. Plus, central sewage treatment yields “biosolids,” the leftover sludge that often is converted into fertilizer. It’s been implicated in rising nutrient levels in watersheds where it’s spread.

Widder notes that people use reclaimed water — “as they should” — for irrigation, but that water also holds nitrogen, a double-whammy when people fertilize their lawns and then irrigate with nutrient-rich wastewater. She and Lapointe advocate upgrading central systems to remove nutrients. Tallahassee did so after its treated wastewater was deemed responsible for polluting Wakulla Springs. That left septic as the largest category of contributors to Wakulla pollution.

After Lapointe’s paper came out, the Florida Chamber of Commerce approached him — not to fund his work (his funders largely are federal agencies and local governments) but to pay $90,000 to Harbor Branch to produce four videos featuring Lapointe and a diverse group of scientists and experts speaking about Florida’s water issues. The chamber has arranged for him to speak annually at its Future of Florida meetings and at other events. “The last people I thought would kind of endorse my research,” Lapointe says.

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.”

Flashpoint: Florida Bay

When it comes to Florida Bay, the expanse of shallow water at the southern tip of the peninsula fed by the Everglades, Brian Lapointe’s focus on nitrogen as the key pollutant flashes into a scientific brawl with researchers he derides as the “Florida Bay Club” along with the Everglades Foundation, the influential environmental group founded by billionaire Paul Tudor Jones and the late Orlando developer George Barley. The foundation, in Lapointe’s view, has been “driving the bus” on policy that worsens algae in the bay, seagrass die-offs and impacts on marine life.

The prevailing view that has shaped water policy holds that Florida Bay has grown too salty since humans altered the flow of water in the Everglades and deprived the bay of enough freshwater. During droughts, the bay becomes twice as salty as the ocean in some places. If salinity spikes too much, the bay crashes, as happened in 2016, killing 80,000 acres of seagrass on the Florida Bay bottom. Dead seagrass can’t serve as a critical part of fish habitat or help clean water and releases nutrients as it decomposes, leading to algal blooms.

The commonly accepted solution is to move more freshwater south from Lake Okeechobee and farmlands, mimicking how water flowed before humans redirected it. In the process, a key challenge is removing phosphorous, which causes a cascade of problems in the Everglades. Those principles are reflected in the multi-billion-dollar Everglades restoration project.

Lapointe, however, says the bay’s problem isn’t salinity; it’s the nitrogen in the water it receives. Omitting nitrogen removal from the restoration plan is a major error, he says — both nitrogen and phosphorus must be controlled. Opposing scientists, some of whom he calls “scientists for hire,” are “dead wrong,” Lapointe says — nitrogen in the marine environment of Florida Bay causes blooms that will persist as long as the nitrogen keeps coming.

Among the very few scientists who agree with Lapointe is Larry Brand, a marine biologist with the University of Miami’s Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Brand says moving more nitrogen-loaded freshwater south is a “scientific mistake. This is a major story in my view, and it’s not being told.” Scientists in the opposing camp don’t take that message well, he says. “They would shut me up in meetings. It was nasty.”

Brand says farming south of Lake Okeechobee exposes the peat soil — naturally rich in nitrogen — to air. That releases the nitrogen south. Restoration projects that remove phosphorus from the system help the Everglades but leave too much nitrogen, which ends up in the bay. Brand says the only solution is to stop farming sugar. If the peat stays submerged, the nitrogen isn’t released.

Steve Davis, senior ecologist with the Everglades Foundation, says independent and reputable scientists don’t agree with Lapointe and that the data don’t support Lapointe’s and Brand’s concerns about nitrogen in the water. The quality of water — including nitrogen — coming out of Everglades National Park into Florida Bay doesn’t contribute significantly to algal blooms in the bay, he says. Davis says Lapointe is “connecting dots without looking at actual causation.”

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.

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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