Septic Tanks to Sewer System: Monroe County 'Doing the Right Thing'
Around the State
Key West, and now all of Monroe County, is teaching the rest of Florida what it's got to do to protect coastal water: Build sewage treatment plants, make every building in every town connect.
It's cost Monroe nearly $1 billion and more than a handful of friendships, but 15 painful years later the plumbing of the Keys is nearly a done deal.
First, about Key West:
In 1979 the environmentally sensitive waters off Key West, near the world's third-largest barrier coral reef, were so fouled with fecal material the state interceded, demanded the city of 25,000 clean up its act. So Key West built a treatment plant and hooked every home and business up.
According to a story in last Saturday's Miami Herald, for 20 years the rest of the island chain did nothing to copy Key West's success. Individual islands "continued to rely on septic tanks, cesspits and other onsite disposal systems, meaning that with every flush, more nutrient-rich human waste seeped through the porous limestone and into the fragile ecosystem of a national marine sanctuary."
Wrote reporter Cammy Clark, "The once-cobalt blue waters of this self-described paradise were becoming choked with algae." So in 1999 -- once again -- the state ordered the rest of Monroe County to convert to central sewers.
It hasn't been easy or cheap. Clark called the conversion process "an odyssey steeped in angry words, purported conspiracies, regulatory wrangling and lawsuits," even though Monroe citizens agreed from the start they wanted clean coastal water. Funding has come from the state, the federal stimulus and an increase in the local sales tax, which is mostly paid by tourists. Admittedly, it has been more complicated than it sounds.
Pahokee's Sasser, a lifelong resident and four-term mayor of the 6,000-population city, points to Monroe County's experience as evidence that Martin County in particular needs to get cracking with its own conversion.
"All over the state of Florida, from Apalachicola Bay to the Green Swamp to the Florida Keys, science is showing that septic tanks are detrimental to the health of the environment when located adjacent to water," Sasser wrote in an emailed letter to environmentalists in Martin County. The former mayor has spent more than a year trying to convince folks to the northeast of the Everglades Agricultural Area that poisoning the Indian River Lagoon is as much, if not more, about their own pollution as it is about agriculture's.
Replying to Sasser, engineer Henderson said, "It has come to my attention that some folks, particularly those who benefit from agriculture, believe septic tanks are the main problem for our estuaries. The science does not support this conclusion."
He added, "We spend millions of public dollars to research issues like this, and then a few folks ignore this huge data set and get emotional or self-serving or both."
But Sasser fired back that much of the "data set" driving Henderson's conclusions is more than 20 years old. "The human population and number of septic tanks around the Indian River Lagoon has greatly increased over that time period ... Martin County's Chapter 10 Waste Water and Sewer component of their comp plan states several concerns over the years by the Martin County Health Department dealing with septic tanks damaging the water supply. Martin County officials chose to ignore those concerns," he wrote.
Sasser says he doesn't understand how Henderson or others in Martin County, particularly elected officials, can be so dismissive of septic tanks' role in pollution of the Indian River Lagoon (IRL).
"In just about every single Rivers Coalition meeting I have attended there was concern about current water samples and testing revealing huge amounts of fecal material in the IRL," he told Henderson and others in his next email. "The science and technology in this area has greatly improved in the last 20 years. There is even DNA testing being done on the fecal matter and what the results will show us will be an eye opener. If it is ever made public. ..."
UPDATE: As advertised in the local newspaper Aug. 7, the Martin County Local Planning Agency meets at 7 p.m. Thursday -- today -- at the County Administrative Center, in a hearing to amend the Sanitary Sewer Element of the Comprehensive Plan -- that's Chapter 10. Read all about it here.
Palm Beach County nurseryman Joel D. Farrell said he agrees with Sasser. "Water hasn't been discharged from Lake Okeechobee in months, but you can't swim in the St. Lucie or Indian rivers because of flesh-eating bacteria," he said. "What does that tell you? Nothing conclusive, but it certainly points to a problem outside of lake water and its effects."
I admit, I see it Sasser's way. I attended state Sen. Joe Negron's emotional Indian River Lagoon meeting last year in Stuart. I can't understand why Martin County commissioners haven't appointed a committee by now -- or directed staff -- to begin formulating and costing out a plan to get the whole county on central sewer. So much outrage over algae blooms -- all of it understandable in a paradise that defines itself in large part by its magnificent waterways.
Wasn't that filthy river water in jars I saw, making its way to Washington? Weren't those dozens, maybe hundreds of angry protesters sending a message to the governor over the loss of their quality of life? Of course it was. Situation real. Situation intolerable.
The residents of Martin County are committed to clean waterways. But what about their elected officials? It's hard to believe that after last summer's lagoon disaster -- and the bad-water nightmare continuing as we speak -- Martin County might actually need the state to come in and deliver them kicking and screaming from septic tanks.
After all residents have been through, could that be possible?
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith