At the July 15th meeting of Miami-Dade County’s Biscayne Bay Task Force, the County’s Water and Sewer Department gave a somber presentation on how the aging septic systems concentrated in the northern part of the County are a significant source of the pollution that is killing the Biscayne Bay in that area.
Septic tanks are essentially on-site wastewater treatment systems for properties that are not able to connect to public sewer. The Environmental Protection Agency lists eight additional types of septic systems in addition to the more conventional systems, and the list is not exhaustive.
There is some debate whether septic systems are better for the environment than municipal sewage systems, but well-maintained systems in either are the best possible answer, according to Earth.com.
One-third of all Florida homes are on septic, and 108,000 homes in Miami-Dade County alone remain on septic, according to the Miami Waterkeeper. The County published their own report last November ‘Septic Systems Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise’. It is unknown how many are currently failing, but the next report by the County will address which areas are most at risk.
Septic systems fail from clogs that cause backups of sewage into the home, deteriorating tanks that leak contamination into nearby waterways, and now sea level rise is causing some to fail when the rising water table impacts the buried tanks and prevents the required gravitational flow necessary for the septic tanks to work properly.
In Miami, water from septic systems recharge the Biscayne Aquifer, the area’s main source of drinking water. Failing systems will therefore impact drinking water, as well as providing sources of nutrient pollution runoff into Biscayne Bay, Florida’s freshwater springs, and the Everglades. Florida’s waters are especially connected.
Last spring, Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute released a study that proved the main culprit of many algal blooms is nitrogen from septic leaks.
According to Miami-Dade County Commissioner and mayoral candidate Daniella Levine Cava, she “has been quite aware for some time that our water septic system is at risk as our water table rises. And septic pollution is one of the causes of [the destruction of upper Biscayne Bay].”
The consensus for now is that the solution requires connecting homes to public sewage lines. The problem is cost, to both municipalities (to build the municipal infrastructure) and to property owners (to convert home septic systems into connectable sewer lines).
Levine Cava says the trunk lines – the main arteries of a sewer system that deliver the wastewater directly to the treatment center – already exist in many areas, so the work is feasible, but the cost is prohibitive.
According to Levine Cava, the County cannot raise the funds through current fee structures, because fees collected by the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department are proprietary, meaning they can only be applied to current fee-payers’ needs.
The goal then is to set aside funds for future rate payers, plus add some state and federal funds under resiliency measures, to pay for the work on the County’s end. But there is no money currently available for retrofitting all the homes that are on septic in the County.
Last year, the Village of El Portal began Phase 1 of their septic to sewer project. They intend to eventually provide sewer service within the entire Village limits, at a cost of over $24 million for just 701 households, plus a smattering of commercial spaces.
Another concern, one addressed by the Miami Climate Alliance, is the differential ability of homeowners to convert.
Zelalem Adefris, Miami Climate Alliance Steering Committee member stated, “[We are] concerned because although wealthy households might be able to foot the bill to connect to sewer (which is incredibly expensive), this would be a huge burden to a middle or low-income family.
Adding, “We’re trying to see how we can get ahead of this issue and get assistance for those families now, before the sewage in their house fails.”
Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection has a Septic Upgrade Incentive Program, but the focus area is in and around central Florida’s springs and their restoration. Miami-Dade County is not on the list of eligible counties.
According to Levine Cava, Miami-Dade is considering working with programs like PACE, to find funds for homeowners to make changes on their end.
“It’s expensive and very essential. But it is only one part of the solution. We also have to reduce fertilizer runoff and sewage leakages. [And] we don’t have the luxury of time. We are already killing the Bay. And with the Bay goes our economy, our recreation, and our health.”
Florida Senator Joe Gruters introduced a bill last legislative session for regular system inspections but the bill died in committee.
Some groups express concern with an enforcement system that will likely again impact low-income property owners differentially, especially if there are penalties or fines associated with the inspections.
Solutions to waste pollution will take huge collaborative efforts. Levine Cava is set to present to the Florida League of Cities in November at their Board meeting “on this very topic.”
She has also reached out to the Florida Association of Counties with the intention of creating state funds for septic system conversions. As Levine Cava put it, “All the Cities and Counties must work together.”