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County approves new rules for accelerating septic-to-sewer switch


Several years after it became clear leaky septic systems are damaging the Indian River Lagoon, the County Commission last week finally took significant action to start switching properties from septic to sewer, inserting a chapter in the 2030 Comprehensive Plan that includes six objectives and 30 policy statements aimed at reducing pollution from human waste.

The unanimous vote in favor of the new rules lags action taken by neighboring lagoon counties and is far from aggressive, but it is a start.

About 50 percent of the county’s residences and businesses – 35,000 – are on septic systems, and about half of those were built before 1983 with only 6 inches of separation between the drain field and the wet-season water table, often located close to drinking water wells and ecologically sensitive waterbodies. Poorly designed and largely worn out, the systems leak household chemicals and nitrogen into the groundwater and lagoon, poisoning marine life and feeding destructive algae blooms.

The plan approved last Tuesday aims to eliminate about 6,000 septic systems by 2025, increasing the percentage of homes and businesses connected to sewers from 50 to 60 percent.

Scientists first expressed concern about nitrogen pollution in the lagoon about eight years ago. Unprecedented algae blooms in 2011 and 2012 that killed a majority of the seagrass in the estuary heightened the sense of alarm.

Beginning in 2013, research done at Harbor Branch by Dr. Brian Lapointe showed much of the nitrogen in the lagoon comes from human waste.

Reacting to Lapointe’s findings and public pressure, the county began a septic to sewer project on the Sebastian waterfront in partnership with the city. At the same time, it floated the idea of installing a sewer system in Summerplace on the island, but that effort was turned back by angry residents who didn’t want their streets dug up, didn’t want to pay for sewers and wanted to know why their neighborhood was being singled out.

Backing off in the face of furious resistance to that project, the county commissioned several studies, including one done by Schulke, Bittle & Stoddard last year that ranked the top 35 of 325 subdivisions in the county that should be converted from septic to sewer based on age of the systems, proximity to water bodies, population density, flood-plain proximity, soil-drainage quality and other factors.

The top five subdivisions targeted for conversion are Floravon Shores with 36 homes costing about $10,500 each to be converted to a county gravity system; a section of Sebastian Highlands with 27 homes costing about $12,700 each to be converted to a county vacuum system; another section of Sebastian Highlands with 404 homes costing about $12,700 each to be converted to a county vacuum system; Hobart Landing Unit 2 with 26 homes costing about $26,200 each to be converted to a county gravity system; and Orchid Island No. 2 with 22 homes costing about $28,800 each to be converted to a county low pressure system.

The county will pick up half the conversion cost with grant money, and offer a 10-year, low-interest finance plan to help property owners pay the other half. Participation will be voluntary.

The plan requires the county to complete about $17.7 million in sewer projects by 2022.

“There were 325 subdivisions included in a comprehensive study that were ranked using good criteria to try to get the biggest bang for the buck,” County Commission Chairman Peter O’Bryan said. “So we can’t be accused of cherry picking.”

New developments within a quarter of a mile of a county sewer line must hook up to the sewer if capacity exists. If capacity does not exist, the development won’t be approved. 

Single septic systems in rural areas beyond the county’s centralized system will be allowed with Department of Health oversight. New permits for septic systems will not exceed 200 annually.