Broward is working to convert septic tanks to sewers

As South Florida faces sea level rise, flooding and storm surges, officials are working to convert thousands of septic tanks across the region to sewer connections.

“Within a few years they will fail, and it will be terrible,” said Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller, who also chairs the water advisory board. And as more and more wastewater seeps into groundwater, “that obviously impacts the safety of our drinking water,” he said.

According to county officials, Broward has removed 16,424 septic tanks so far. Many other adjustments are in preparation.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a septic tank is a buried container designed to receive and partially treat raw domestic sanitary wastewater. Solids settle to the bottom of the tank while fats and lighter solids float to the top. The solids remain in the tank while the wastewater is discharged to a drainage field for treatment and distribution.

But wastewater treatment plants “were not originally designed with the assumption that groundwater levels would gradually rise over time and therefore may no longer function as they were originally designed,” said Dania Beach Assistant City Manager Candido Sosa-Cruz.

In Dania Beach, a newly approved $9.5 million project will build a sewer system in a 75-home neighborhood on the banks of the Dania Cut-off Canal, now served by septic tanks. The money will fund construction of a pipeline and lift stations to replace septic tanks, which are at high risk of failure due to sea level rise, flooding and storm surges.

County commissioners recently approved their share of $4.75 million, and the other half will come from federal funds.

“By connecting these 75 properties to a sanitary sewer system and installing a new water main, this will help the community adapt critical/significant infrastructure for flooding and sea level rise,” Sosa-Cruz said.

Broward County Water and Wastewater Services' septic tank removal projects in the current budget include: An additional 2,170 of the remaining 2,415 septic tanks in the county's service area in portions of Hollywood and Pembroke Pines will be removed. Construction is scheduled to begin in early 2025.

And in county-controlled areas of Dania Beach, the county will seek funding for “two smaller septic tank removal projects.”

Although Broward has eliminated many septic tanks, the exact number of septic tanks that remain outside the county's control could not be quantified, Geller said. This is because although sewer lines are installed, not everyone has the connection made, as the cost to homeowners can run into the thousands.

“But there are a lot of people,” he said. Because the septic tank captures raw sewage and discharges it into the groundwater, “you don't want poorly treated wastewater getting into the groundwater,” he said.

Miami-Dade: Shortage of labor and materials

There are 120,000 wastewater treatment plants in Miami-Dade County, half of which are in the North Bay watershed. Most of the tanks the county describes as “permanently failed” are located on canals that flow into the North Bay.

Roy Coley, director of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, said there are “9,000 failed systems that we have identified as our priority for replacement.” Within five years, those 9,000 will be converted. In total, 11,000 septic tanks are being converted at some level of the process, be it design, planning, permitting or construction.

The homes with septic tanks that are near canals and have a water quality problem will be targeted first. That's because the canals lead to Biscayne Bay, which ultimately affects everyone.

Why it doesn't happen overnight: money and work.

“Wherever we get money, we work on it,” Coley said. “We rely heavily on grants.”

And there is “literally a shortage of contract workers and materials. If all of South Florida tries to do the same thing, we will be competing for resources. This slows us down; We’re not moving the way we’d like.”

He warns homeowners with broken septic tanks to be proactive: “Children should not play in their yards; (There is a) direct health consequence.”

“Time and Money”: Palm Beach County

In Palm Beach County, the Loxahatchee River District, which serves the communities of Jupiter, Tequesta, Juno Beach and Jupiter Inlet Colony, as well as unincorporated Palm Beach and Martin counties, is eyeing conversions.

Thousands of homes have already been converted to sewer systems, but in rural areas there are still “a few thousand using sewer systems,” said Executive Director D. Albrey Arrington.

“Ultimately in 100 years every property will be drained, it would be hard to imagine anything other than that,” he said. “But building sewers takes time, money and resources.”

In urban areas, “we're basically done, except for a few remaining areas,” Arrington said. The county “leaves the political argument to elected officials: 'Are we going to build a sewer system in our watershed and if so, when?'”

The purpose is both human health and the environment, he said.

“It’s really important,” he said of the effort. “The water flows very freely under Florida all the time. So if you have a septic system in your home, it's the water that leaves your home, it's the medications you take, any medicine that goes into your body, into your toilet, personal care products, down the drain and into a (septic tank).” That in turn flows into a drain field and seeps “into the shallow groundwater around your house.”

People with wells risk contamination of drinking water supplies, and if pollutants leak into the soil, it could “change the properties of the ecosystem.”

In Palm Beach County, construction of the 13-home Indian Hills neighborhood will be completed this year. It is located east of Federal Highway (US 1) across from Jonathan Dickinson State Park and Jupiter Hills Golf Course.

Jupiter Farms and Palm Beach Country Estates – both rural areas with property sizes larger than an acre – fall into the “To Be Determined” category for now.

“There will be extensive research and analysis to determine the best approach to mitigating the potential impacts of septic tank wastewater in these areas,” Arrington said.

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on X, formerly Twitter, @LisaHuriash

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