In 2016, the State of Florida passed the Springs Protection Act. Its intended purpose was to protect the quality of water flowing from our springs so future generations can continue to enjoy them. The Act identifies thirteen areas of our state, basins, and each is appropriately under a separate Florida Department of Environmental (FDEP) Protection plan called a “Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP). The plans identified two large areas of concern, the use of both residential and commercial fertilizers and the use of conventional septic systems, as the major culprits in polluting our springs. Periodically, it is good to step back and assess both the goals and remediation efforts to see how we are doing. These are called “gates.” As you pass through them, the assessment should allow for critical review and adjustments to assure that the intended benefits can be achieved. After almost 5 years, it is time to look at our first gate.
- Fertilizers have been placed under Best Management Practices. This means that everyone gets to promise to use them responsively. Fertilizers are responsible for seventy percent of our critical water quality issue, nitrogen. It seems somewhat disingenuous that the plan to fix our springs has left our largest issue up to an individual’s good will, a promise to comply. This is the proposed solution for both residential and commercial use of fertilizer.
- Water usage, or flow from our springs, is a variable. It depends on rain and draw-down or commercial use via wells. Virtually no consideration has been given to this rather clear fact. Our aquifer continues to be regulated for commercial profits while residents who use it to sustain their lives are under constant pressure to conserve. Why is this important? The Springs Protection Act defines success as a percent of diluted nitrogen in our spring vents. In fact, a University of Florida study (CRISP) reports velocity is the single most important factor in maintaining water quality. Less water increases the diluted nitrogen thus making it harder to measure and achieve the desired goal.
- An additional factor affecting flow, is our States’ two conflicting water usage strategies. First, is the good trend of conservation of our water resources. Mandated low flow faucets and showers, low consumption toilets and the progressive pricing placed on city and county supplied water has provided a downward trend in residential water usage. At the same time, Florida’s Water Management Districts have granted permits, giving away our water to industries such as bottling companies. Millions of gallons of water are removed daily from our aquifers for commercial purposes. People told to conserve while industries pump out more each year seems to conflict with common sense.
This problem was highlighted in the 2017 Wekiva Homeowner Study. Septic tank readings of nitrogen contribution were higher in homes with lower water usage because of conservation.
- While there are numerous other smaller sources for nitrogen pollution, conventional septic systems have been identified “via computer modelling” as the second largest issue of contribution of nitrogen. As a result of BMAPs in Florida, 350,000 septic systems have been identified as requiring replacement by either a sewer or an advanced septic system. Because BMAP contains its own “gates,” FDEP can increase that number of required conversions if goals are not being met. To be accurate, septic systems and advanced septic systems will both continue to contribute to the nitrogen concerns within our water. The only solution that can potentially meet the arbitrary goals as stated are municipally operated sewers because 100% of all pollutants are routed to a treatment facility controlled by Federal EPA standards.
- One final note, our Florida aquifer is recharged several ways. One of course, the main method is from rain. But secondly, every lawn that is watered, every septic system that is in operation is also part of the recharge mechanism. Earth is a good filter and if we blanketly assume all watering and septic systems are a problem, it will only reduce the flow of our springs and rivers by removing some of the recharge. That only makes it harder to achieve a goal measured in amounts of diluted nitrogen and water.
Eric Hoffer, an American moral and social philosopher, said, “Every cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket.” We are at the beginning of this journey and yet, there are signs that despite all our efforts, it is now a racket. Strong words but let us look at facts.
The Springs Protection Act sets a measurement requirement of 0.286 mg/L of total nitrogen as a spring standard of cleanliness. It has no basis in any other Federal or State law. The number was selected under a concept called the “precautionary principle.” The principle is a precautionary, philosophical, and legal approach used on anything with the potential for causing harm when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. In other words, the goal is not possible to achieve. It was set high just to be safe.
On the surface, this might even seem logical. However, there are mitigating circumstances that question the use of this principle for water quality. Science can determine the quantity of nitrogen in human waste. What BMAP science does not care to know is whether the nitrogen is organic (from a life form) or inorganic (from a chemical compound like fertilizer), and how the earth itself denitrifies in route to the water table. This may be the most significant of all errors. There has been no thorough research done at the water table. The computer model stops measurements of nitrogen at 24 inches below a drainfield. Yet in most of Florida, the water table is typically much deeper and there is scientific evidence that most denitrification takes place at the water table.
This value, 0.286 mg/L, is called a load, a load on the environment. While it is being established as a ratio of total nitrogen (organic and inorganic) and water in our springs, Florida counties are required to respond to BMAP’s goals in pounds of nitrogen applied to the earth within their jurisdictions. Counties are expected to regulate their citizens disposal of waste and fertilizer until until someone can scoop a sample of water from our spring and it is 0.286 mg/L or less. Such methodology only assures that the rule-making power of our agencies will never end. When a goal is not real and measurable, we should not expect results except in terms of more regulations.
Other major problems with BMAP planning is that the computer modeling has not considered every contributor of nitrogen to our aquifer. Here are just a few. Aging sewer lines exfiltrate waste into the ground. This is massive. Every major city in Florida falls into this category. Pipes leak, pipes break. This is “untreated waste” and not the same as that produced by septic systems. When treatment plants process waste, they produce a solid called “cake.” Cake is trucked off to landfills, even put back on the earth as fertilizer. Cake contributes millions of pounds of nitrogen back to the earth. While this may not be something that can be avoided, our models used to make decisions should reflect all contributors. All assumptions should be tested and proven scientifically.
Before we rush out and start replacing septic systems with advanced septic systems, there are just a few facts that are important:
- No advanced system removes all nitrogen, only a sewer line connected to a treatment plant does that.
- Advanced systems require electrical power. During weather events, sheltering in place for Florida residents becomes impossible, and some systems even dump untreated waste into their drainfield when used without power. This can cause the drainfield to fail.
- Advanced systems typically depend on oxygen and bacteria to denitrify. Blowers will vent odor into neighborhoods (studies show this). Use of antibiotics, antibacterial cleaners and chemotherapy drugs void warranties and cause malfunctions. Are thousands of Florida residents forced to use these advanced systems being told they must be less safe than the rest of the population during a pandemic?
- Pumps, switches, relays, filters all require constant maintenance. No one, not the industry, not FDEP has tried to compare the cost of advanced systems over the life of a home to that of a gravity fed sewer. BMAP requirements could easily become an economic drain on our state’s homeowners. Maintenance and replacement costs continue forever. Or is this part of the plan? There is an environmental conflict in our goals. Florida expects 6 to 8 million more residents into the State of Florida in the next 10 years. The environmental lobby continues purchasing up available lands, increasing burdens and regulations on growth everywhere but urban centers. Are we using water policy to subtly try to curb growth?
Florida is a wonderful state offering good weather, prosperity, and environmental sensitivity. If any one event has highlighted the contrasting problem with our conflicting strategies, it has been our recent pandemic. Not all people want to live in major cities. What does that mean? A responsible water quality plan is needed that includes rural growth, and modernization of our urban infrastructure. Our state needs leadership driving the plan, not the many competing special interests. And our state needs to give its landowners an equal seat at the table. The Constitution protects property rights through the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ Due Process Clauses and, more directly, through the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. There are two basic ways government can take property: (1) outright, by condemning the property and taking title; and (2) through regulations that takes, or limits uses but leaving the title and economic damage caused by the taking with the owner (regulatory takings). Water policy must be consistent with protecting the rights of property owners.
To conclude our status check on BMAP, we will go back to Eric Hoffer who said, “Every cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket.” All you need to do is to look at the septic system industry’s lobbyists. They are openly lobbying against permanent solutions such as sewers and are all for temporary advanced septic systems like those supplied and serviced by their members. It is not that the industry is inherently bad. There very well may be products that can offer value to the challenges of providing some rural waste management. We just do not know. Florida’s homeowners need to be protected by FDEP. There have been too many guesses in the planning process and not enough consideration for the people who will bear the brunt of BMAP’s mandates. We need more science, real observable, and repeatable science directing the State to the proper solutions. We need to know how much they cost or even if they really work in the homeowner’s property.
Today’s advanced system warranties and certifications are not adequate to provide consumer protection. For example, the National Sanitation Foundation’s NSF-245 certification is a six-month test, done above ground and with artificial effluent that contains only half of the nitrogen in human waste. Instead, the certification of NSF-360 should be the minimum Florida requirement. This standard requires a manufacturer to have 100 systems installed, then tested while operating in homes for a year. Maintenance too, must be assured. We cannot treat our waste management strategies like we do home air conditioning, replacing units very ten to fifteen years. The costs are significantly higher. The impact on lifestyle and housing values are even greater.
It is time for the Florida Legislators to stand up for their homeowners. The homeowners and landowners of Florida were promised year after year, that the BMAP plans would include funding assistance for sewers and even advanced systems. Where is it? Counties who have the responsibility to develop the plans down to a neighborhood level cannot plan for things like sewers year by year. BMAP goes on for 20 years or more. We urge our legislators to find solutions that protect citizens as well as the “springs.” We urge citizens to be a constant voice to your legislators reminding them that they work for you and not the industries that provide Florida products or those who lobby for unachievable environmental and unscientific goals. For the sake of trust, FDEP cannot and should not function as a lobbyist!