MARCO ISLAND — Free water seems Biblical, akin to Moses tapping a desert stone. On Marco Island, where water rates start at $3.62 per 1,000 gallons, finding a new source of free water could be such a gift from heaven.
Homeowners in the sewer districts of Sheffield and Kendall recently received information on converting septic tanks to cisterns. The possibility of harvesting non-potable water may soon be available to those who must connect to central sewer and decommission their septic tanks.
Letters were sent from the city including deadlines for connection, said Steve Thompson, Marco Island city manager.
The schedule that prompts residents to connect to the system also triggers deadlines for taking their septic tanks out of commission. That’s why the city chose to send out information regarding conversion to cisterns with the notice.
“It’s a great conservation idea,” said Public Works Director Rony Joel.
“We’re not too far into the process, so there’s still time for residents to submit applications for grant money.”
Prior to March 6, the Florida Department of Health required septic tanks be removed or made unusable when homeowners connected to a central sewer system. The city directed homeowners to have septic tanks pumped, sanitized and filled with crushed stone after residents tied into its sewer system.
If passed on April 26, state legislation may change that rule allowing septic tanks to be converted to cisterns to store rainwater for irrigation.
A variance has already been approved for the Florida Keys. That change was prompted by environmental concerns and drought considerations. All septic tanks in the Keys are scheduled to be eliminated by next year.
As a drought deterrent, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority is offering $500 rebates for septic tank conversion to cistern. From a cistern, non-potable water can be used for irrigation. A spokesperson acknowledged Tuesday that the program had only recently been put in place and no requests had been received to date for conversion.
A similar grant was prepared by the City of Marco Island and submitted to the South Florida Water Management District. The maximum amount that can be awarded per community grant is $75,000. However at this time, Joel cautioned that the amount Marco Island could receive is unclear. Also, the number of participating residents must be confirmed before the final grant award can be decided.
“We don’t have the grant yet, but if money is available it will not be until after October 1,” said Thompson. “Expenses cannot be incurred until that date for those wishing to receive the grant.”
“We sent an application with the letter to residents to see who would be interested,” Joel said. “The grant requires 27 participants.”
Thompson clarified that the grant requires a savings of at least 500,000 gallons of water through the use of cisterns. A requisite number to reach that savings would be 27 participants.
By Monday, Joel had received four verbal commitments but no written applications.
“The letters just went out so it’s early, and this process is very fluid,” Joel said. Originally the date for submission was in April but that has been moved to late May.
“We want to give people time to decide if they want to convert,” Joel said.
Conversion costs have been estimated by the city. They include the initial cleaning and testing, mechanics such as pumps and electric, retrofitting for collection and irrigation, and permits. The total cost is estimated to be $5,147. The grant per homeowner could be $500.
Some of the conversion items may not be necessary, said Joel. If roofs are used as the catchment area, gutters will need to be placed where they can collect the greatest amount of runoff. The placement of the current septic tank from the harvesting area may require extra piping to the holding tank.
Several residents have actively sought the city’s involvement in the septic-to-cistern concept.
Keith Klipstein, a resident on Dogwood Drive, inquired about the process after he received a letter concerning his hookup to the city’s sewer system.
“I have a tank to be disconnected shortly, and if the price is comparable, I might consider (a cistern),” he said. “I believe in conservation but I’m also a pragmatist. If it’s two or three times more expensive, it’s a bit rich for my blood.”
During public comment at City Council on April 6, Keith Pershing asked about cistern conversions.
“My feeling was, it’s my septic tank and it’s in my yard. Why can’t I use it?” Pershing said.
According to manufacturers, a well-designed and maintained septic tank should last about 50 years.
Pershing questioned the city’s cost estimates particularly the $2,000 for sealing, disinfecting and testing. Shannon Kane, a contractor who also spoke at the council meeting, estimated the same work at $600 to $800.
“The estimate was informational. The city is not the contractor and costs are not being driven by the city,” said Thompson. “Homeowners need to negotiate with their own contractors and get the best price they can.”
Considering payback for investment, Pershing measured his outdoor water use for comparison. In 10 minutes he used 200 gallons for irrigation and with a hand-held hose used another 600 gallons watering trees and shrubs and doing outdoor cleanup. His septic tank holds 1,000 gallons.
“If I converted it to a cistern, even in the rainy season, I would have a renewable 1,000 gallons of water to clean the driveway or wash the car that would be virtually free,” Pershing said. “Even if the cost is more to turn the septic into a cistern, I’ll still be saving money per year.”
The average annual rainfall for the area is 53.9 inches. The city estimates that over the past five years, average rains would fill a cistern seven times during the eight-month dry season and 14 times during the rainy season. The estimate was based on a typical 1,050-gallon septic tank.
Thompson is hopeful 27 homeowners will be interested in the cistern conservation plan.
“It’s a good way to save water and the city is behind it,” Thompson said. “To get on the list, residents just need to call Leslie Sanford in the Public Works Department and tell her. Then they need to sit tight until we have more information.”
Pershing suggested the city partner with homeowners and the SFWMD grant to sweeten the pot.
“The city built a water storage tank for nearly $2 million,” said Pershing. “Why doesn’t the city support this?”
“A request like that has not come to the city,” Thompson explained. “This is a good program and the city is interested in it and in water conservation.”
To be put on the list of interested homeowners, residents should call the Public Works Department, Leslie Sanford at 389-5002.
The city’s website, www.cityofmarcoisland.com, has more information about septic tank to cistern conversion under the heading Septic Tank Replacement Program.