We sit and wonder why the Seagrasses, Pelicans, Dolphins, and Manatees die?

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
May 2013

As a lad growing up, many of my friends still had an outhouse.  We were careful not to put garbage into the pit. Farmers and gardeners knew not to mix human waste into the compost for our food growing soil to prevent human diseases. People have known for years not to pollute their water supply with their waste. Yet in Indian River County that trend continues. Harbor Branch Scientist, Brian Lapointe, says “Sewage is probably the biggest source of pollution in the estuary”.  But have we really come a long way since 1559, when folks just put their butts out the window over a river or street as in the famous painting, Netherlandish Proverbs, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netherlandish_Proverbs)?  Campers on the Lagoon’s islands leave their human waste to be washed into our waters.

Photo: Bob Montanaro

For those living in less dense areas, septic tanks can serve to handle human waste, if properly placed, properly sized, and properly maintained by pumping out every three to five years. However, we also know that human waste from leaky old septic tanks and plugged drain fields can seep into our groundwater in addition to pollutants from our roads and chemicals from our lawns.  Scientists recognize that unfortunately this groundwater is also flowing into our lakes, rivers, ponds, lagoon, and oceans.

Our local utility directors report that there are about 36,864 septic systems in Indian River County. Some 17,554 were installed prior to more environmentally sound rule changes now requiring a 24-inch separation from the water table, and at least a 50-foot setback from surface water.  Septic systems installed prior to 1983 have only a 6-inch separation from the water table and may be 25-feet or closer to the lagoon and with no container bottom.

Over 900 septic systems are in place on the barrier island alone in the City of Vero Beach, 83% of which are not in compliance with current septic standards for new construction.  Septic systems are designed to catch all our indoor drain’s waste and to slowly percolate liquid waste through the surrounding soil.  Approximately 265 gallons of wastewater per day per household leaches into ground water, carrying nutrients from the food we eat, along with other chemicals that have entered our septic system.

The variables that determine how much pollution enters our water table and eventually the surface waters are:

  • Date of installation – before or after the 1983 rule changes
  • Elevation of the system above ground water
  • Type of soil which is serving as a filter
  • Amount of rain
  • Amount of waste entering the system.
  • Quality and size of the drain field

What can we individually do?

  • Organize our neighbors to request sewer installations in our neighborhoods
  • Pump out our septic system every 3-5 years
  • Never drive or park over the septic system that might crush the drain field pipes
  • Plant only groundcovers over and near the drain field as deep roots disturb and “stop up” the drain field
  • Never flush or put down drains: toxic waste such as medicines, oil, grease, paint, pesticides, cleaners, diapers, sanitary supplies, paper towels
  • Use composting instead of a garbage disposal
  • Spread laundry loads over the week
  • Conserve water use to lessen septic leaching

Additional information can be found at http://www.myfloridaeh.com/ostds/index.html.

Our elected officials must make tough decisions to reduce the number of septic systems leaching into our ground water and the Indian River Lagoon:

  • Prioritize areas that need new sewer lines based on age of the home and proximity of septic tank to the lagoon or surface water
  • Require home owners near existing gravity fed sewer lines to connect
  • The county and cities public utilities can require owners to connect to central gravity fed sewer systems after a 365 day written notification (Section 381.00655 Florida Statutes,).  The cost can be spread over 10 years.
  • The county and cities need to pass stronger standards for septic tank systems repairs.  Currently, repairs are “grandfathered in to their old code” and systems do not need to be brought up to the current code.
  • The public needs to be kept informed: The County should post to their website, water quality indicators to show us progress is being made.

Call or write your local county commissioners and city councilors to support these new policies immediately!

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