Septic tanks are the source of major issues flowing through Florida. Thousands of residents flush toilets, take showers and wash clothes every day with little thought about all the waste flowing down the drains and into their septic tanks. Many of those septic tanks are too old, too close to each other and too close to groundwater. Most were never designed to remove nitrogen. Statewide, nitrogen and other contaminants flowing into septic systems seep out through Florida’s porous sands and limestone and into groundwater aquifers, polluting springs and waterways.
Septic systems that are out-of-sight add to the growing concerns about the rising tide of nitrogen and other pollution that feed algae blooms.
Septic systems are just one piece of an increasingly troublesome challenge of managing the more than 300 billion gallons of wastewater generated per year by the state’s more than 20 million residents. Aging, undersized city and county wastewater systems, storm water runoff from streets, sludge disposal, and fertilized lawns and farm fields all spew nitrogen and other contaminants into waterways and the layers of water underground that provide most of Florida’s drinking water.
The extra nitrogen stimulates the growth of algae species that form thick beds and cause stress on other aquatic species by spurring wild fluctuations in oxygen levels.
Although toxic species like red tide on Florida’s beaches may grab more headlines, nitrogen-fueled algae has changed the character of many Florida springs.
To fix all of these issues will be expensive and the funding is not there.
As of January 1, new state rules went into effect that are aimed at cleaning up some of the state’s springs systems and will crack down on septic systems.
Over the next 20 years, the new rules, called “basin management action plans,” will require some homeowners in “priority focus areas” near the springs to add enhancements to their existing tanks, get new tanks that remove more nitrogen, or eliminate their septic tanks and hook up to city sewers.
Septic tanks have been a politically divisive issue for years, with legislators, local officials, the industry and homeowners split over their contribution to pollution problems and how to get Floridians to maintain and repair the systems.
Septic tanks will never be eliminated entirely, in part because of the exorbitant expense to replace them. But, coming up with the money to help fund sewer conversions will be another challenge for local governments that won’t disappear anytime soon.