Seminole plans converting septic tanks to sewer to protect Wekiwa

One way to stop harmful algae and invasive weeds from polluting the ailing Wekiwa and Gemini springs is to dig up septic tanks and replace them with sewer connections.

That's the goal of Seminole County officials this week as they launched plans this week to convert thousands of homes with septic tanks near the sensitive Wekiva River and Gemini Springs into sewage systems to remove the nitrogen and phosphorus that the Waters have been polluted for a long time.

“We’re very happy about it,” Gray Wilson, a board member of the nonprofit Friends of the Wekiva, said of the county’s move. “From an environmental perspective, it is much better to treat the water through a sewage system than through a septic tank.”

Because plans are still in the early stages, county officials don't know what the cost of such a large project would be, when work would begin, whether all homeowners with septic tanks would have to make the switch and how much they would have to pay.

“We’re not there yet,” Seminole Environmental Services Director Kim Ornberg said after a presentation on the topic to county commissioners Tuesday. “We are still in the analysis.”

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Commissioners agreed to apply for a $20 million grant from the St. Johns River Water Management District to help fund the first phase.

Of the nearly 26,000 septic tanks countywide, about 6,300 are located around the Wekiwa Springs Basin in southwest Seminole and the Gemini Springs Basin in the northwest quadrant near Volusia County.

Under a 2016 state law, the county would have until 2036 to connect septic systems to sewer lines or require homeowners to upgrade septic tanks to release fewer nutrients into source areas. Septic tanks within Seminole's rural border on the east side of the county would not be affected because they are outside the headwater basins.

A septic tank is a buried container that receives wastewater and allows solids to settle and decompose at the bottom. The liquid — which contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus and serves as nutrient-rich food for invasive plants — is then drained into the soil and much of it eventually flows underground into the springs, leading to algae blooms and fish kills, according to Seminole officials and State biologists. According to biologists, old and leaky septic tanks are harmful every time the toilet is flushed.

“Septic tanks are a major contributor to nutrient pollution,” said Robert Reiss of CHA Consulting, who was hired by Seminole for the project.

Orange County began its project to convert septic tanks to sewers in 20 neighborhoods near Wekiwa Springs about five years ago.

Homeowners in Orange had a choice: connect to the nearby sewer system or upgrade to a top-of-the-line sewer system, which would cost them tens of thousands of dollars.

At an estimated cost of $145 million, the Orange County project is far from complete today, and some residents have complained about torn up yards, sidewalks and streets.

Reiss said a new, upgraded septic tank would reduce harmful pollutants by 65%, not just like connecting to a sewer system.

“There would still be nutrients leaking into the environment, even though it’s a much better system” than using an old septic tank, he said.

Lake County also plans to convert septic tanks to sewers on the east side of that county.

Jerry Blackburn, president of the Bridgewater Community Association in the upscale Heathrow neighborhood east of the Wekiva River, said converting the 128 older homes from sewage to wastewater would be “a huge investment” for residents.

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“I would say: What do I get for this? And how much would it cost me?” he said.

But Blackburn pointed out that although there is a monthly bill to connect to a sewer system, homeowners will not be burdened with high costs for clearing clogs or maintaining a septic tank.

Commissioner Lee Constantine, a former state lawmaker who championed a 2010 law requiring mandatory septic tank inspections to protect Florida's at-risk springs, spoke in favor of the county's septic tank-to-sewer project. This law has since been withdrawn.

“The month [sewer] “Not only will the bill increase the value of the property, but the impact on the environment is immeasurable and incalculable,” Lee said. “It is a very worthwhile program. Yes, it will cost something…But in the long run it will help Florida’s environment a lot more.”

County officials said they plan to give a more detailed presentation of the septic-to-sewer project to commissioners in October and hold community meetings.

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