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IRNA urging county to act on septic systems


The Indian River Neighborhood Association has added its voice to those calling on the County Commission to undertake and complete a comprehensive plan to deal with septic systems that are contaminating the Lagoon.

Cities in Indian River County and counties to the north and south have weighed the scientific evidence of massive septic pollution and put in place plans, programs and infrastructure to begin eliminating the most harmful septic systems, and hooking homes and businesses to sanitary sewers.

But the current slate of Indian River County Commissioners has not devised a plan or authorized any infrastructure to deal with the county’s 35,000 septic systems, many of which were built prior to 1983, when state regulations required only a six-inch separation between groundwater and the bottom of septic drain fields and allowed drain fields within 25 feet of the lagoon.

“Not only has nothing been done, worse, there is not even a plan – or for that matter, the beginnings of a plan to do anything,” IRNA executive board member Carter Taylor wrote in an email to 32963. “The county’s comprehensive plan is completely silent on septic and sewer.”

It was a motion made by Taylor, and unanimously approved, at an IRNA board meeting that led to the organization’s call for action.

Issued on Jan. 8, the IRNA statement says, in part, septic systems “are a leading cause of nutrient loading and degradation of water quality of the Lagoon. For this reason, jurisdictions within Indian River County, as well as Florida Counties to both our north and south have taken measures to reduce the population of existing septic systems.  

“IRNA calls upon Indian River County to amend its Comprehensive Plan 2030 to include an initiative to extend County water and sewer facilities to prioritized geographies currently served within the Urban Services Area . . .  (and) to provide funding in its FY 2017 budget for an investment-grade plan that results in actionable, logically-prioritized opportunities for converting septic to sewer.

“IRNA believes it is reasonable for such a plan to be completed within the FY2017 timeframe.”

The gravity of the septic pollution problem came to light in 2013 when Harbor Branch scientist Brian Lapointe reported that much of harmful nitrogen in the Lagoon was coming from human sewage leaking from county septic tanks. The nitrogen feeds algae blooms that smother sea life, while coliform bacteria and household chemicals further pollute the water, making it dangerous for humans and spreading disease among bottlenose dolphins and other marine mammals.

“We found a very strong chemical signal of sewage pollution along the length of lagoon, with the highest levels in Indian River County,” Lapointe said at the time. “At the end of the rainy season the IRC lagoon had an average reading [equivalent to] what you would get if you tested at the mouth of a sewage treatment outfall.”

Since that time, many area governments and agencies have made reducing septic pollution a top priority. Both Vero Beach and Sebastian have active septic-to-sewer programs.

At its January meeting, the Indian River Lagoon Council, the main regional group that plans and puts in place projects to protect the Lagoon, concluded septic pollution is the greatest threat to the waterway and agreed that septic tanks in communities bordering the lagoon should, ultimately, be eliminated.

St. Johns River Water Management District governing board member Doug Bournique said, “Studies clearly show we’ve got to remove septic tanks.”

Volusia County Councilman Doug Daniels said that in Volusia County, “Septic tanks are our BIG issue. Even if they’re functioning properly, they are still spewing out pollution.”

In November, the Volusia County Council (equivalent to the Indian River Commission) amended its legislative priorities “to add $223 million in water-quality improvement projects it would like to complete over the next five years,” including projects to eliminate harmful septic systems.

Also in November, the Martin County Commission voted unanimously in favor of a long-range $138-million plan aimed at eliminating 10,400 of the 16,000 septic systems in the county utilities service area. The county plans to move ahead with a first $38 million phase in the coming year, taking several large neighborhoods off of Third-World waste disposal systems and hooking them up to sewers.

“Martin County’s recent actions are very significant,” Lapointe told 32963. “Our research helped raise awareness of the contributions from septic tanks, and the Martin County Commission responded, understanding that the water quality problem is more complex than some have previously thought.” 

Some Indian River county commissioners have a bit of Tea Party bent and may have veered away from action on this crucial economic and lifestyle issue because of an ingrained unwillingness to add expenditures to their budget, but Taylor believes that attitude is penny wise and pound foolish.

“To paraphrase a popular bumper sticker from the ’70s, ‘If you think planning is expensive, try ignorance,’” he wrote in his email, calling it “incredible” that “five years after the disastrous algae ‘superbloom,’” the county’s top-level planning document still does not address the need for septic-to-sewer conversion. “You can’t have decision making based on political philosophy without examining the facts and evidence.”

Taylor points out that there is $18 billion worth of real estate in Indian River County, including thousands of multimillion-dollar homes along the Lagoon in John’s Island, The Moorings and other waterfront clubs and communities, and that all that value rests to a considerable degree on the beautiful natural environment in and around Vero Beach.

Under those circumstances, spending $100 million or more to keep the Lagoon from turning into a foul dead zone may be smart politics as well as good government.

“If we don’t wake up, septic pollution will impact the property value. Some of the things that need to be done (to prevent that) seem like relatively attractive propositions and good returns on investment,” Taylor said. “Our county has the capacity to borrow and money is cheap. Construction costs will increase faster than inflation. Looking back, this may be seen as a very good time to do this.”

Taylor says he has been informed by unnamed people familiar with the county government that the IRNA proposal “will be absolutely dead-on-arrival at the Commission, if not before.” But he hopes commissioners will do the right thing and is looking for one of them to sponsor the comp plan amendment and move the agenda item to fund a plan.

He said he reached out to commissioners last week about the plan but as of Monday had not heard back from any of them.