Florida has roughly 2.6 million septic tanks and they are a growing threat to the state’s environment.
People don’t see the hazard, “because it is underground, it is out of sight, out of mind,” said Dr. Brian Lapointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University,
Lapointe launched his first septic-tank study in the mid-1980s in the Florida Keys. More and more nutrients were seeping into the water and killing the coral reefs. Sewage was a major contributor.
The growing levels of nitrogen and phosphorus fed algae that suffocated the coral, consuming oxygen and causing a “dead zone.” The state ordered central sewage collection and treatment in the Keys.
Yet, here we are more than 20 years later still addressing the problem except it’s spread to many other parts of the state. Septic tanks have become increasingly harmful partly because of sea-level rise and increased rainfall.
Florida law requires that there be a two-foot separation between the bottom of the tank’s drain field and the top of the water table. That allows for dry soil in between to absorb and treat contaminants. But because the water table is rising in parts of the state, many septic tanks aren’t working properly.
The overflow carries nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria, viruses and pharmaceuticals into the groundwater and ultimately surface waters. The result is public health problems.
For example, last summer in Cape Coral the failure of septic tanks and old sewage collection systems fed toxic blue-green algae blooms that fouled the air. Some residents had to evacuate for a time.
It is a statewide issue and no one is immune.
“Sea-level rise is increasingly putting us between hell and high water,” Lapointe said.
Some communities addressed the problems long ago. In the 1970s Tampa Bay governments added more sewers and sophisticated sewage treatment plants. This has helped reduce algae blooms and led to widespread seagrass recovery.
The American Society of Civil Engineers in 2016 estimated that Florida communities needed to spend $18 billion to address the wastewater infrastructure crisis.
“If Florida required developers to utilize proper wastewater collection and treatment up front, the cost could be much lower than doing this down the road as a retrofit,” he said. “Politics is much more difficult than environmental science.”
“Florida is at a tipping point,” he said. “The fight against algae is the fight for Florida’s future.”
The Keys began addressing the problem in 1999 when the state ordered Monroe County to convert about 33,000 septic and cesspits to centralized sewer systems, Assistant County Administrator Kevin Wilson said.
Most Keys properties are now connected to sewer. The cost was about $1 billion, he said.
Earlier this year, Miami-Dade County issued a report saying that the county has tens of thousands of septic tanks and that most of them are malfunctioning. The report said it could cost as much as $3 billion to retire the tanks and connect customers to a sewer system.
Rachel Silverstein, Miami Waterkeeper executive director, said that 56 percent of septic tanks are malfunctioning part of the year.
“That’s a huge deal for a developed country in 2019 to have half of the septic tanks not functioning for part of the year,” she said.
In Broward County Jennifer Jurado, the county’s chief resiliency officer, said that leaky septic tanks are hurting water quality in the county.
In Hollywood roughly 45 percent of the city’s water customers use septic tanks. The city is spending millions of dollars to expand its sewer system but the work is going to take a long time.
Also in Broward, State Rep. Chip LaMarca, a Republican from Lighthouse Point, is trying to get the state Legislature to help parts of the county convert from septic to sewer.
“The septic to sewer conversion projects that are being planned locally … are critical to the preservation of our water sources,” he said. “Many of these systems are contributing nutrients to the blue-green algae epidemic that is causing Florida’s pristine waterways to become polluted and unusable.”
Lapointe said that part of the state’s problem is that the wrong state agency oversees septic tanks. At the moment, they are permitted through the Department of Health. But the Department of Environmental Protection is the agency that addresses water quality issues.
Florida Sen. Ben Albritton, a Republican from the west coast, has introduced a bill to transfer responsibility of septic systems to the Department of Environmental Protection.
Benita Goldstein is a civic activist in Delray Beach.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.