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Shores to consider eliminating aging septic systems


Pressure on local governments to take action aimed at reversing the ecological crisis in the Indian River Lagoon has resulted in programs to phase out septic tanks, and the Town of Indian River Shores is not immune to the issue.

The Shores is served by Vero Beach Utilities but sewer service is not available to the entire town and 160 homes still use aging septic systems that most scientists say leak harmful chemicals into the groundwater and eventually into the lagoon.

The Shores Town Council has in the past heard presentations about septic pollution by environmental organizations and scientists, including Dr. Brian LaPointe of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, but the discussion was strictly academic; the Shores never considered taking action to mandate that residents switch from septic to sewer.

Now, however, Councilman Dick Haverland is urging his colleagues to fully examine the issue and ponder potential solutions.

“Bring somebody in to give us all sides of the issue,” Haverland said, acknowledging there is some disagreement among experts about how much septic systems contribute to the overall pollution load in the estuary.

A mile or two south of the Shores Town Hall, the City of Vero Beach is tackling the issue with a hybrid septic-sewer system in which the liquid from septic tanks is pumped into a small pipe that connects to the city’s main wastewater system and the septic tank is left in place as a backup. The city plans to extend the system throughout the island portion of Vero and install it in some mainland neighborhoods.

At the same time, Indian River County Utilities plans to begin construction next summer on a $2.2 million project to run more than 11,000 linear feet of sewer line to serve 61 residential and commercial parcels along the Sebastian riverfront. The project will eliminate the need for 38 septic tanks and, as County Utilities Director Vincent Burke said, “any future development [near the sewer line] would be done in an environmentally sound manner.”

With lagoon health and septic tanks at the forefront at the state level, local governments can pursue grant funding as the county did for its project, with St. Johns River Water Management District footing $650,000 of the $1.97 million construction costs for the Sebastian sewer line. The county utilities department will chip in $400,000, $393.000 will come out of the county’s local-option sales tax revenues, and $531,000 will be assessed to individual property owners over a 10 year period. The City of Sebastian voted to cover residents’ impact fees for hooking up to the system.

“We’re not saying that this is the end-all to solve the lagoon problems,” Burke said, adding that the sewer project is just one part of a broader set of actions the county has taken, “an arrow in the quiver” to reduce harmful runoff into the lagoon.

Responding to Haverland’s request, Shores Town Manager Robbie Stabe said he would pull a workshop together, probably in February, so the council and the public can get all the information needed to make a decision about how to handle septic systems in the Town.

Stabe said he would also bring Vero Utility Director Rob Bolton in once again to explain the STEP system and tell the council what might be involved with expanding hybrid sewer service to homes now on septic systems.

In the meantime, Stabe and Town Clerk Laura Aldrich said they would pull out the minutes and handouts from previous presentations on this topic and distribute those to refresh council members’ memories about previously presented septic and sewer information.