Septic tanks, retention ponds part of focus for state's Blue-Green Algae Task Force in 2022

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

The state's Blue-Green Algae Task Force plans to tackle issues like septic tank pollution and the effectiveness of retention ponds in 2022.

Some parts of Florida are literally covered and filled with septic tanks and retention ponds, both of which add to the Sunshine State's growing list of water ailments. 

"This last meeting was septic-to-sewer," said Blue-Green Algae Task Force member and Florida Gulf Coast University researcher and professor Mike Parsons. "There are so many septic tanks in the state and not every septic tank needs to be replaced."

Mangroves grow in a wetland at the Estero Bay Preserve State Park. Some areas that drain into the preserve use septic tanks to treat sewage at some homes and small communities. The tanks weren't designed to remove nutrients, which are at the root of many of the state's water quality problems.

Florida has nearly 3 million septic tanks, and that number keeps growing as rural areas develop and builders continue to install septic tanks to pass on the eventual cost of connecting to a sewage utility to the home buyer. 

Also, older septic tank systems were not designed to remove all pollution from the water. 

"They were never designed to remove nutrients," Parsons said. "They were designed to remove pathogens. To really have septic tanks remove nutrients, you have to move to these advanced systems and they’re much more expensive and require much more maintenance." 

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Lee County is ripe with septic tank installations

Lee County is ripe with septic tank installations in communities like San Carlos Park and septic-to-sewer conversions that have taken place in towns like Bonita Springs and Cape Coral. 

San Carlos Park drainage eventually flows into the Estero Bay State Aquatic Preserve, one of the state's most protected waterways.  

"Lee County has a relatively high number of septic tanks, particularly in Lehigh Acres," said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. 

Other areas in Lee have shown signs of septic hot spots in recent weeks. 

Bacteria counts measured recently were high in the Imperial River in Bonita Springs along Old 41 Road. 

"The Imperial River had some source tracing done, and it had sewage waste indicator source, so that’s primarily untreated sewage," Cassani said. "But there could be other sources, animal waste of course or fecal bacteria." 

In areas breaking from septic, homeowners have had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to connect to an expanding utility. 

That dynamic, in some cases, pits homeowners and their pocket books against clean water. 

"It’s politically unwise to force people to buy these new systems," Parsons said. "It would help if the state could help with tax credits or with municipalities." 

Not all septic tanks are bad. 

"There are areas that are better suited for septic, if they are rural enough," Parsons said. "The biggest area of concern there is springs, and there septic tanks are a major source of nutrients."

Task force members are also focusing on stormwater retention ponds

Task force members are also focusing on stormwater retention ponds, the man-made water collecting ponds that are supposed to help contain pollutants. 

A recent University of Florida study says some of the 76,000 stormwater retention ponds in Florida are actually emitting more carbon than they're storing, another ecological issue. 

"They’re emitting nutrients in the same way," Parsons said. "It’s not a sink, it’s become a source of carbon. All that sludge at the bottom of the ponds are a source of nutrients." 

Parsons said he still wonders what the limits of the algae group should be – that some of the issues may be beyond the scope of a task force. 

"Is it too big of a problem to handle?" Parsons pondered. "I don't know. I think we’re still in the feasibility stage in terms of what can we do." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.