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Report for 07/31/2014

SEWERS OR SEPTIC SYSTEMS? The following quotes in Black are excerpts from the article that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on 7/31/14. Thank you to Kevin Spears from the Sentinel for soliciting my input for this article. Time and space limitations of any article do not always permit all pertinent information to be presented, so I have taken the liberty of providing additional information that hopefully will give all interested parties a more thorough understanding of the facts I have gleaned over the past six years. Ultimately, the residents of the area targeted for sewers must decide for themselves what is best for them, but no decision is ever made well without a comprehensive understanding of the facts.

Comments by Andrea Samson, Editor of the Sludge Report are in Green

"It has been a long time in coming," said Nancy Prine, a founding member of Friends of the Wekiva River. "The river has been studied and studied and studied. It's just fantastic that something is moving forward." “Studied and studied” is not exactly factual. One quick “grab sample” from ONE septic system in Orange County was tested for nitrogen and this one sample is the “science” that is driving the push to convert septic systems to sewers. The test showed that within 30 feet, of the drainfield nitrogen measured 10 mg/liter, the same amount that is considered acceptable for drinking water. Before it reaches the springs, that 10 mg will be further reduced by soil and groundwater.  The “study” authors recommended that this one sample should NOT be considered representative of all 55,000 septic systems in the Wekiva Study Area, and that a more scientific sampling be undertaken. Other sources of nitrogen assumed to enter the springs and river have been studied and studied, but not septic systems. That’s a fact.

“State investigators have confirmed that Wekiwa Springs and the Wekiva River are contaminated with a form of nitrogen called nitrate.” Continuous monitoring by FDEP shows the nitrate/nitrite levels in the Wekiva River have declined over the past ten years. In 2015, new figures should be available to show the current level and if the decline is continuing. This decline was tracked during the housing boom in the Wekiva Springs area when a large number of septic systems were permitted and operational in the area closest to the river. If proximity is the concern, and we haven’t stopped flushing our toilets during this period of time, perhaps there is another explanation! "They have also shown that water in the Floridan Aquifer moves beneath Wekiva-area homes toward Wekiwa Springs." Even in the one sample mentioned above, the testing team had a difficult time determining groundwater flow and had to sink probes in a direction exactly opposite the assumed direction.

"But where the nitrogen pollution in the springs comes from — other sources include fertilizer and storm water — has remained unsettled." If one is going to use the MACTEC report to target septic systems as a source of nitrogen pollution, that same report should be used to target other sources as well. That report says 70-80% of the nitrogen pollution comes from fertilizers and storm water. The idea that sewering this small number of homes will “significantly” improve water quality is not supported by their own data.

"In recent years, the state Legislature called for and then backed away from requiring Wekiva-area homes to upgrade septic systems to far more complex models designed to reduce nitrogen pollution." As we predicted six years ago, those complex Performance Based Treatment Systems have been proven abysmal failures in the Keys where they were mandated and installed. In real life, not in the lab setting, 75% of them did not reduce nitrogen as advertised, and they shut down constantly creating a service nightmare, and a homeowner nightmare. An article on this is in the archives of the Sludge Report.

"Andrea Samson, editor of the online Sludge Report, an early opponent to state attempts to lessen septic-system pollution, doubts that much would be gained by connecting the 380 homes to sewer service." I learned something last Tuesday in a conference sponsored by the Florida Environmental Health Association. A highly credentialed soil scientist identified the Apopka area as the ideal environment for the installation of septic systems! The reason is that we are high and dry. The water table below Sweetwater West is 40 feet down. Draw your own conclusion as to whether anything will be gained by spending millions of taxpayer dollars installing sewers.

"Sewer systems leak and also contribute nitrogen pollution to aquifer waters, Samson said, with the result that they cause "more and worse" water pollution than septic systems."  Something else I learned – sewer lines do leak and sometimes crack where soil shifts. In an area that does get sinkholes, the potential for serious jeopardy exists, and the potential for septic systems to be safer than sewers also exists. When sewers leak and break, the contents are considered “hazardous waste” because sewers do not eliminate pathogens and bacteria. Septic systems do eliminate these risks to human health. Septic effluent is considered a biosolid, not pretty, but not hazardous.

"Samson said the state needs more study to verify the best action." I also said to Kevin that spending money is always an option. Spending wisely is always advisable. It would be very sad to see no improvement in the springs and river after the 6 million dollars is spent and gone.

"But the St. Johns River Water Management District has decided it is time to tackle some of the nitrogen sources closest to the springs: the 380 homes." SJWMD has just contracted to spend $3 million dollars on another study with the University of Florida. The purpose is to identify and quantify pollution sources. Question: If they feel they need more knowledge and are putting their money into it, why are they acting in advance of that knowledge?

"Casey Fitzgerald, initiative director at the water district, said his agency's best analysis shows that nitrogen pollution from the 380 homes reaches the springs within two to five years." If they are so convinced this is the case, sink some monitoring wells in the subdivisions and spend the next two years between now and the actual installation of the sewers actually sampling to see if the taxpayer funds are being wasted or wisely spent.

"You looking at a high concentration of nitrate very close to the springs that's migrating to the spring," Fitzgerald said. "It's an ideal place to start." According to the soil scientist mentioned above, these homes are located in the ideal place, Apopka.

FACTOID: If each resident in these subdivisions planted two trees at the edge of the drainfield, it would soak up 20 pounds of nitrogen per year, the same amount of nitrogen that the studies say each system releases into the soil. Cost-effective, I’d say.

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