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Don’t go in the water, it’s full of sewage (Click Here for an article on the post Irma Health Hazards). That’s the warning we heard over and over in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, and Harvey too. There can’t be any more “flush it and forget it” in our thinking about sewers and the commonly held belief that they are so much better for our environment than septic systems. Septic system owners may have been without power for a week or more, but they could stay safely in their homes and still flush.

At the same time, billions of gallons of raw sewage found its way into storm drains, waterways, homes and lakes as lift stations lost power and could no longer move sewage to treatment plants, and the treatment plants could no longer function, forced to dump into infiltration basins, oceans and rivers. Residents on sewers statewide were warned to limit water use, including flushing, because of the lift station and treatment plant failures. Because of IRMA, EPA has temporarily called off enforcement of Clean Water Act water quality standards, giving a “get out of jail free” card to all permitted water treatment facilities.

From a human health standpoint, passive septic systems seem to be the safest thing around! Oh, wait! Sewers are supposed to be the safest thing around. Not so. Even before IRMA, sewage dumps, broken sewer mains, and failed lift stations were a big problem. (See the Sludge Report, “The 800 lb. Gorilla”). Oh, wait! The accusation levied against septic systems is not about human health and bacteria from septic systems, it’s about nitrogen from septic systems.

Not really, but that’s the excuse used when septic to sewer conversions, or power dependent advanced treatment systems are being justified and paid for with taxpayer dollars.

Examine please the following case study as a glaring example of very expensive, illogical, counter-productive, tunnel vision:

Just a couple of years ago, St. Johns Water Management District (SJWMD) committed $4 million of Springs Protection dollars to a cost-share project in install sewers in a Northwest Orange County neighborhood, taking 380 homes off septic systems near Wekiva Springs. Orange County and Orange Utilities Commission were expected to put up another $4 million. Estimated Nitrogen reduction was 5,380 lbs. per year.

FIRST ISSUE: SJWMD had a $25 million Springs Protection budget that year. A press release proudly stated the nitrogen reductions achieved by all projects was 500,000 lbs! By the time the real costs of converting 380 homes to gravity sewers were calculated, this one project represented 36% of their budget and achieved only 1% of the total reduction. If anyone in business did that kind of return on investment calculation, shareholders would revolt and replace the decision makers!


SECOND ISSUE: Costs ultimately grew to a total of $12 million – 50% of the yearly budget, when it was determined gravity sewers could not be installed. Topography was a problem. “Low pressure” sewer systems that required a county-owned, 300-gallon tank and a pump at every house was the second choice. The final nail in the sewer coffin was the need to condemn a home to make room for an additional lift station to pump sewage to the sewer main. Obviously, IRMA knocked out power. With low pressure systems, within 24 hours of IRMA, 1,000 additional people would have been forced to leave their homes and go to hotels, shelters, or friends with passive septic systems.


THIRD ISSUE: This is the “kicker” issue. Bad science! The estimated nitrogen reduction in this project was based on a report debunked years ago. A more recent FDEP study conducted in this area tested nitrogen levels at several homes. One of the homes was tested at 24, 48 and 60 inches below the septic system drainfield. At 60”, they had not yet reached groundwater and the nitrogen level was 8 milligrams per liter – a 92% reduction. The soil was doing its job! At 25 ft. below the drainfield, nitrogen was on a trajectory to be 5 milligrams per liter – a 95% reduction. It doesn’t get any better than that, and it makes intervention literally unnecessary! Even the highly touted so-called “passive” systems developed in the $5 million-dollar Nitrogen Reduction Strategy Study don’t get any better than that, and the test systems are not passive! They have a pump! Hello, Irma.

Pigmy Marmoset

Here’s my takeaway….before any agency or municipality dumps millions and millions of state taxpayer dollars into nitrogen reduction projects for septic systems, make sure it’s needed!  It makes far more sense to invest a small percentage of these seemingly limitless springs protection dollars into site specific testing so something of value is accomplished.  Speaking of value, legislators and agencies alike need to take care of the 800 lb. Gorilla in the Room before any money is spent on the Pigmy Marmoset.