By Katrina Elsken
Lake Okeechobee News
OKEECHOBEE — Scientific studies have shown the nutrient load from septic tanks contributes to the excess phosphorus and nitrogen that disrupt the natural balance in lakes, rivers and estuaries and feed algal blooms. State and federal grants have made funds available to help Florida counties with septic-to-sewer conversion projects to improve water quality.
According to information shared at the Sept. 8 meeting of the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and the Indian River Lagoon, some counties are facing opposition to septic-to-sewer conversion projects from residents.
“Lake Placid received a $40 million grant for sewer and Sebring received a $10 million grant,” said Highlands County Commissioner Arlene Tuck. “We’re trying to get as many people as we can converted to sewer.” She said they are having some problems with Lake Placid residents.
“We too have had some challenging neighborhoods dealing with the septic to sewer conversions,” said Martin County Commissioner Doug Smith.
While grants help get the price of connection down to around $9,000 per residence, some residents say that is too much, even with a payment plan.
He said Martin County had to give back some grant money to Florida Department of Environmental Protection because they could not make the septic-to-sewer conversion plan work.
Smith suggested they ask the Florida Legislature to add a funding category for fiscally constrained neighborhoods.
Okeechobee Commissioner David Hazellief said Okeechobee County is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get sewer lines to the Okee-Tantie Recreation Area, which is inside the Herbert Hoover Dike, for the Bass Pro project. Bass Pro’s resort arm, Cedar Lodge, plans to turn Okee-Tantie into a world class fishing resort.
Hazellief said he is concerned about a large housing project planned in Glades County on the rim canal near Buckhead Ridge.
He said instead of putting in sewer lines, the developer is working with (Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) seeking permission to put more septic tanks on the rim canal.
Glades County’s representative of the coalition was not present at the meeting.
“We are continuing to move forward with our north beach septic-to-sewer program,” said St. Lucie County Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky.
He said an older community of about 500 homes in his county has a homeowners’ association (HOA) which does not have control over sewer line easements. He said they need a vote of 60% of the residents to create the easements. Without that, the county doesn’t have the authority to go in and provide the piping.
The county has grant funding to help with the sewer lines, so instead of costing $20,000 to connect each home, it will cost $9,000 he explained. “Without the easements, we can’t get that.”
Under a new Florida Statute, by 2033, if a home is near a connection point for sewer, they must connect, he said.
However, they are still having difficulty getting the HOA to go forward with septic-to-sewer conversion. “If they don’t do it now, we might need some help from FDEP to push that issue, to say, ‘It’s outside your door now.’
“They are going to have to put it in in 10 years regardless. Going from $9,000 today, in 10 years it’s going to be $30,000 or $40,000, doesn’t seem like a good outcome,” said Dzadovsky.
“This is one of the challenges of having an older community,” he said.
Collier County Commissioner William McDaniel said convincing the public of the necessity of septic-to-sewer projects should start with testing.
“Deploy your pollution control folks,” he suggested. McDaniel said counties can require that any new septic tanks or replacement of septic tanks use the most effective technology available.
Testing in Collier County found septic tanks can work well on larger properties, he added. In Golden Gate Estates, with properties of 2.5 acres or larger, they found these properties were large enough for “Mother Earth to do her job” and absorb the nutrients.
McDaniel said testing is important to determine how much of the excess nutrient load in the waterways comes from septic tanks. Testing for caffeine is an inexpensive way to determine if human waste is in the water, he added.
He also suggested setting up repayment for sewer line installation as an ad valorem assessment which allows the homeowner to stretch the payments out. In addition, “allow it to be subordinated,” so the assessment does not have to be paid off in full in order to sell the house, he added. This would mean the new property owner would assume the remainder of the payments for the sewer line installation.