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Nancy Smith

Wealthy Waterfront Town at 'Algae Central' Decides to Keep Septic Tanks

August 4, 2017 - 9:15am

Well, roll me in corn flour and call me dinner ... Sewall's Point, one of the wealthiest towns in Florida -- the one at the epicenter of blue-green algae on the Treasure Coast -- this week turned down septic-to-sewer conversion.

That's what I said, decided AGAINST it.

Residents at Monday's meeting weren't convinced they're part of the problem.

Can you believe it?

I Beg to Differ

Sewall's Point, population 1,996, where every property on this pencil-thin, manicured Martin County peninsula is feet away from either the Indian River or the St. Lucie River.

The town where, in 2013 and 2016, residents were wringing their hands like Uriah Heep and screaming bloody murder in public meetings because the water was so polluted they couldn't touch it.

It's not as if these folks don't know Florida's got a big nutrient loading problem in its rivers and estuaries, or that too much phosphorous and nitrogen can trigger algal blooms that choke the oxygen right out the water and cause incalculable damage to riverine ecosystems.

And it's not as if they didn't get the message about the presence of fecal matter in the water. It's certainly made local, state and national news. Runoff -- agricultural and urban -- plus sewage top the list of culprits. And sewage, while a problem in virtually all waters, is particularly an acute problem in the Indian River lagoon.

Every year more than 4.4 million pounds of nitrogen from upwards of 600,000 septic tanks leaching into tidal creeks and canals wind up in the 156-mile-long Indian River Lagoon -- of which Sewall's Point is part.

"Most of us have realized this is a problem," Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute's Brian Lapointe, told TCPalm in 2015. "Having this density of septic tanks in this poor soil condition and high water tables is a recipe for disaster, and that's exactly what we're seeing play out."

Have another look at the video Lapointe made last year with PBS. It's shown on this page.

Some residents at Monday's town meeting -- granted, not all of them but apparently the majority -- had forgotten about the umpteen river samples Lapointe has taken over the last few years confirming the deteriorating quality of their waters and the presence of human waste. Instead of jumping at the county's outline for an $11.6 million septic-to-sewer conversion, they argued that forcing residents to convert to sewer was a violation of private property rights -- that as long as septic tanks are legal, they shouldn't be forced to pay for something else.

If it sounds to you like an excuse, you're forgiven.

Under the proposal, the county would have ponied up $1 million of the capital cost. And each property on a septic tank would have been responsible for $695 annually, inclusive of interest and other fees, over a 20-year period, payable through their property taxes.

The town also left $500,000 on the table, money the state would have given it to extend the sewer line at least partially. OK, the commission is going to meet again on this Aug. 22. But I wouldn't hold out too much hope if I were you.

According to a story in TcPalm, "Some opponents said, among other things, that septic tanks are not polluting the St. Lucie River and Indian River lagoon to an extent that would cause algae blooms. Opponents also said that if the sewer line is extended, property owners would be mandated to hook up to the mainline sewer."

But wait a minute. Septic tanks are leaking into the rivers. Fecal coliform, the source of nitrogen,  contributes to a deterioration of water quality. Period. That's just how it is.

Florida's water bodies are in crisis. Floridians do what they can, what is in their power, to right the ship. In the end, that's all they can do.

Look at what's happened in the interest of improving the ecosystem just around Lake Okeechobee. The state is dealing with the problem positively, in a two-pronged attack: water quantity (storage) and water quality (cleaning):

  • The South Florida Water Management District has the C-44 and C-43 projects under way, expanding reservoirs to capture and store more water to the east and the west of the big lake.
  • The Central Florida cattle industry is all but gone because of the high levels of nutrients they were thought to be contributing in the Kissimmee River basin. Much of this farmland is now used for citrus, which adds far fewer nutrients.
  • Cities like Clewiston, Pahokee, and Belle Glade have all converted from septic to sewer.
  • Farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area are required under the 1994 Everglades Forever Act to reduce phosphorus annually. They have reduced it by an annual average of 55 percent, far exceeding the 25 percent required by law.
  • Sugarcane farmers have given up more than 120,000 acres of farmland for water storage and treatment projects.

People doing what's in their power to do.

Martin County is making an effort to extend sewer lines and expand its system to communities within its bounds. But what is Sewall's Point doing? Now we know the answer.

Here are people whose waterfront property -- median value $714,000 -- is increasing in value. In fact, Sewalls Point home values have gone up 10.8 percent over the past year, algae or no algae, and Zillow predicts they will rise 2.5 percent within the next year. Sewall's Pointers should be setting an example for other Martin residents who are less privileged yet choose to do the right thing for the waterways and the Florida environment they love.

LaPointe says this about the relationship between septic tanks and algae: “We have two major problems, that discharge from the lake bringing a lot of fresh water into the system and then all the septic tanks that are also draining into the system with fecal coliform bacteria. And it really is like the perfect storm coming together, creating a big, big problem in this area.”

Septic-to-sewer conversion an affront to private property rights? Please. It's an excuse to hug a status quo that is destroying a vital component of our state.

This town between bridges just east of Stuart had an opportunity to do the right thing, and they blew it. Next time the blue goo settles along their shoreline, they'd best lay low and stay quiet as mice. In my book anyway, they don't get to complain.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith


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Your title is misleading as the town has not made a vote . There is more than 1 plan to choose from and unfortunately you only noted the no vote near the end of your article. Irresponsible reporting, but I guess none of that matter anymore does it. Very one sided reporting. Also there are normal middle class families that live in the town, there are more properties off the the water than on it.

Funny that the county is forcing the lower income people of Old Palm City to change at 18k per house but the wealthy again can make up there own rules to benefit themselves, very sad.

Everyone should be on sewer if available or offered in the State of Florida, because ALL that is underground will eventually make it into streams, estuaries, drinking supplies, and our food. This is a simple issue when you look at it with regards to the number of people and where the water goes.

The writer is not a unbiased writer nor does he provide all correct information available, not that is new to many of us. The animal industry tried over 20 years ago to use vegatsion to clean waste water. What they found was it took to long and was not an effective cleaner of the same chemicals that are used in numerous articles across the country. One of the things one learns about animals is when you feed them protean their bodies only use what they can, the rest comes out in waste as nitrogen which when introduced to the air turns in to annonia. Also I find the tonnage numbers used when talking about the reservoirs are pulled from a hat. In the newest Current publication I believe it reads 89 million tons of nitrogen cleaned from the water. I want you to just stop and think about such numbers. And ask yourself this. In sandy soil what happened to the nitrogen? Where did it go? A by product of sewage treatment plants is known in the industry as sewage sludge, this is everything flushed in to the system that is not human waste. It contains heavy constrations of medals, and dangerous chemicals. Their is ag land that is so contaminated from this sludge you won't plant on in it for years. And the sewar lines across the country is in terrible conditions with no one talking about replacing them. The whole situtaion is sad for everyone, but no easy answers!

I would be better able to understand what you're saying if the spelling and verbiage were correct.

If lenders would refuse to lend on property that is in a sewer available district, property owners would have a different calculus. Try to sell your million dollar plus estates, with executed contracts, and the banks refuse to close because the property is not connected to the available sewer connections.

It doesn't surprise me...homeowners being irresponsible. Our Founding Fathers always underlined the importance of being responsible citizens...for with liberty and freedom comes responsibility.

WE went thru a year and a half of sewer construction on BIG PINE KEY...When a pipe breaks or the power goes out the Major pollution begins. The reefs and channels already show degredation near the collection plant so the next fix is 2000 feet deep injection wells. There is no easy answer,

Well my great-grandmother Grace Scobie who lived to be 102 told me the Titusville, Florida city council shot down Henry Flagler and his railroad hub and idea of a Palm Beach at Sand Point. He left livid and said that area was cursed and would never amount to anything. Here we are many decades later and silly people are still doing silly things.

I live in Seagate Harbor in Palm City. We converted over 10 years ago and paid the small cost. Why can't one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Martin do the same me? It will long term help everyone including the property owners.

If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. I hope the Town does not plan to affront the USCOE or SFWMD when the next algae bloom occurs. You no longer have a legitimate argument. Ex Deputy Executive Director, Everglades Restoration, SFWMD.

I am amazed at the hypocrisy here. The same folks who now say septic tanks are not a problem were screaming at the top of their lungs a few years ago to push Martin County into restricting the tank sizes on ag properties in the western part of the County. And now when the current commission wants to go back to the State standards, these same folks are flipping out again about how this will destroy the river. Apparently in Sewall's Point, how you feel about property rights and environmental preservation is directly related to how it impacts their own pocketbooks!!!

I too was surprised and disappointed by the town's decision. However, when the Lake O massive discharges happen again, and transfer Lake-borne algal blooms to the river, the residents there, and anywhere on the St. Lucie can still complain, whether you like it or not Ms. Smith. By the way, there is a big, bad bloom brewing today, Aug 4 in the NE corner of Lake O, and DEP samplings came back positive for microcystin toxins, though not off the charts yet, at 1.9. The drone footage of the bloom can be seen right now on You Tube by searching "Biglin photography." So we are just thankful that the Lake is lower than the C44 canal for now. We certainly do not deserve another toxic summer and fall like last year's.

Blah, blah, blah. Do you ever make a comment with substance. You continue to create and incite the community for your own profit. I know that continuing to create fear of another algal bloom increases your donations, but please tell me how this helps the river? What have you or bullsugar done to help the river? And for goodness sake don't say SB10 because we all know it was a loss for bullsugar, Everglades Trust & their cronies and a win for the Glades. Your comment above & your continual cry about algae makes it seem like you are actually hoping for more algae just to spite those who disagree with you. Hmmm....

We also have it on FaceBook under Bill Biglin. We will be back out soon to see what is happening!!!

The decision of the town and the comments following the article how the amount of hypocrisy "oozing" out of Sewall's Point. WOW!!!

Von Ormy, Texas. "The freest little town in the world." Do a search - if my link doesn't work. Look up what "libertarianism" did. None of us are in anything together - right.....?

Laponte fails to point out that there are 101 wastewater treatment plants in this area that discharge over 80 MILLION GALLONS OF wastewater each day into those waterways. Septic systems do not discharge into surface water. The tracer elements found in the waterways come directly from wastewater treatment plant as those plants do not treat for those elements.

When septic tank systems are not maintained (and most are not) or they fail, the raw sewage goes directly to the water. Wastewater treatment plants TREAT the sewage and the effluent is as good or better than the water that is is discharged to. Sooner or later these residents will be forced to resolve their malfunctioning systems. In the mean time, downstream suffers.

Sometimes I just must cover my face with my hands and try not to think about the lack of common sense that has permeated the septic verses sewer debates over the past seven years. Not a day goes by without a major sewer line break or muni-wastewater plant dumping thousands and thousands of gallons, sometimes millions of gallons of untreated, yes, RAW SEWAGE into neighborhoods, creeks, bayous, canals, rivers, and lagoons. Yet the drumbeat and the dollars flow toward converting 2.5 million residents who use septic systems to sewers. It’s highly questionable if that is the most productive use of taxpayer dollars when the sewers connected to 20 million residents and 100 million visitors are served by infrastructure already overloaded and dangerously crumbling. What’s unbelievable is that the septic to sewer conversions are focused on reducing or eliminating the nitrogen output of those who use septic systems. I have yet to see any reporting on the nitrogen content of these huge raw sewage spills. Apparently it is not ever considered a problem. Signs are posted warning swimmers, anglers, and neighborhoods about the bacteria present in raw sewage spills, yet the nitrogen content and impact of these spills is either ignored or dismissed. Several articles I read over the past year quote various officials saying they were “unconcerned” because the soil or the water current will take care of it. If that is true for raw, nitrogen rich sewage, why is it not also true for septic system sewage that is pre-treated in the tank and through the soil beneath the drainfield? Is the human waste product from those on sewers different than those who use septic systems? Ft. Lauderdale stands out as a glaring example of this ostrich mentality. A Sun Sentinel article published on 1/15/17 indicated that a month after a ruptured sewer line sent 2.5 million gallons of raw sewage into a neighborhood near the Tarpon River, crews were still working to decontaminate driveways, mulch, yard dirt and crawl spaces under homes. Okay, that addresses the bacteria in a raw sewage spill. What about the nitrogen residual? Not a word. In 2016, this same city has had three other major sewer line ruptures sent a total of 16 million gallons into a canal, a lake and another neighborhood. While the Ft. Lauderdale elected officials admit the infrastructure is aging and crumbling and repairs will cost nearly a billion dollars to repair, this city and others around the state who are experiencing the same catastrophe continue to compete for state and water management funding to convert septic systems to sewers. A Longboat Key councilman said after a similar spill that there’s nothing sexy about fixing a sewer infrastructure – no one sees it. He is correct. Nor does anyone see the sewage that leaks every day from these sewer pipes even before they break and dump. Honestly, after reading all these articles about sewer infrastructure failures, no one with an ounce of common sense should point to septic systems as the major cause of the floating pea soup that plagued Indian River Lagoon area. When older residents say they would like to see the canals and rivers return to the pristine condition they were in fifty years ago, they refer to that time period known as “BS” (Before Sewers).

Amen! I couldn't have said it better myself.

Well said. The septic systems is a problem but nothing compared to these industrial sized "spills", ag. runoff, back pumping into canals. This year we don't have discharges from Lake O , there is an algae bloom on the lake, and no major algae blooms in the IRL.

At least the voters were intelligent enough to vote FOR a special tax aimed at the IR, and IRL's cleanup. Novel idea, paying most of their own way.

As a coastal resident, it is my right to poop in the Indian River Lagoon and force others to clean it up. If you disagree with this, I will fight you and probably go to jail.

Really? Then why did the Town require new subdivision developers to design and install sewer manholes and sewer mains and service stubouts for those subdivisions dating back to the early 1980s. Manholes and pipes are still in some streets south of the East Ocean highway. Pull a lid on one of those hanholes and note that it is dry and never used. Waste of money, time and breath! So much for forward thinking by the leadership of Sewalls Point. AND GUESS WHAT, the Town of Jupiter Island has only a couple of city sewer connections (not more than 6)! All of the residential homes are on SEPTIC TANKS TOO.

The Town of Jupiter Island is all on sewer actually. They are all connected to Southern Martin Regional Utilities-SMRU (the Town owned water/sewer company). They don't need to hook to city sewer connections when they have their own.

Great article and exposes the hypocrites who are too often seen waving signs and chanting mantras blaming everybody but themselves for the pollution from their septic tanks seeping into the Indian River Lagoon and adding to the algae blooms. Blaming farmers fifty or more miles south of the IRL who are not sending any water to the IRL is a nice way to deflect the attention away from their own polluting lifestyles in houses that destroyed beautiful natural seashore habitats.

Wrong. Exhibit A, B, and C. C-23, C24, and C-44. Largely farm runoff last I checked, from farms directly west of the St. Lucie and IRL. Sugar (with the exception of 27,000 acres in Martin County) does not directly pollute as it did prior to approx year 2000, but we all know they are one hell of a dam in the River of Grass.

The only problem is that there is no algae blooms and no discharges from Lake O. There is however a huge algae bloom in Lake O and the water level is very low. Central Florida, the Kissimmee river area has received a lot of rain this year and yet Lake O is still very low. The real problem here is Lake O and it's polluted water .

Maybe the people in the county where the problem is could vote an additional tax to pay for a proper cleanup!

Comments are now closed.

nancy smith

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