Septic tanks may pollute waterways

A potential source of water pollution could be in your back yard.

Nationwide, about 20 percent of American homes use on-site sewage treatment and disposal systems (OSTDS), more commonly known as septic tanks. In most states, septic tanks are used in rural areas where it is not cost-effective to run sewer lines to remote homes. In Florida, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), about 30 percent of all homes have septic tanks. Florida is home to 12 percent of all of the septic tanks in the United States. Unlike Northern states where most homes with septic tanks are in rural areas surrounded by farmland, in Florida septic tanks can be found in urban coastal areas where development outpaced sewer line expansion or where developers opted to put in septic tanks to cut costs rather than pay the fees required for sewer line expansion and hookups.

The FDEP estimates there are about 2.6 million homes in Florida with septic tanks. Many of these septic tanks are in environmentally sensitive watersheds.

While manufacturers recommend that septic tanks be pumped out and inspected every one to five years (the Environmental Protection Agency recommends one to three years), according to FDEP, only about 100,000 septic tanks in Florida are pumped out each year. That means more than 2 million septic tanks have not been pumped out within the past five years. According to testimony given in Florida legislative hearings, many have not been pumped out in 20 years or more.

In 2010, under Gov. Charlie Crist, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring septic tanks be inspected at least once every five years. Two years later, with Rick Scott in the governor’s office, the Florida Legislature repealed the law.

In rural areas, where residents are more likely to have grown up in a home that had a septic tank, homeowners are more aware of the need for regular septic tank maintenance. Many who move to Florida from an urban area have no experience with septic tanks.

As amazing as it sounds, according to the EPA, some people who buy homes in Florida don’t even know they are not on a public sewer system.

The EPA offers this handy checklist for “how to know your home has an OSTDS.” The EPA website advises:

“You may already know you have a septic system. If you do not know, here are telltale signs that you probably do:

“You use well water.

“The waterline coming into your home does not have a meter.

“You show a “$0.00 Sewer Amount Charged” on your water bill or property tax bill.

“Your neighbors have a septic system.”

The EPA advises homeowners protect the OSTDS by conserving water. The average indoor water use in a typical single-family home is nearly 70 gallons per individual, per day. Just a single leaky or running toilet can waste as much as 200 gallons of water per day. All of the water a household sends down its pipes winds up in its septic system. The more water a household conserves, the less water enters the septic system. Efficient water use improves the operation of a septic system and reduces the risk of failure.

“Your septic system is not a trash can,” the EPA advises. “An easy rule of thumb: Do not flush anything besides human waste and toilet paper.”

Never flush:

• Cooking grease or oil;

• Flushable wipes;

• Photographic solutions;

• Feminine hygiene products;

• Condoms;

• Dental floss;

• Diapers;

• Cigarette butts;

• Coffee grounds;

• Cat litter;

• Paper towels;

• Pharmaceuticals;

• Household chemicals like gasoline, oil, pesticides, antifreeze, and paint or paint thinners.

Think at the sink!

A septic system contains a collection of living organisms that digest and treat household waste, the EPA says. Pouring toxins down the drain can kill these organisms and harm your septic system. Whether you are at the kitchen sink, bathtub or utility sink, the EPA cautions:

• Avoid chemical drain openers for a clogged drain. Instead, use boiling water or a drain snake.

• Never pour cooking oil or grease down the drain.

• Never pour oil-based paints, solvents or large volumes of toxic cleaners down the drain. Even latex paint waste should be minimized.

• Eliminate or limit the use of a garbage disposal. This will significantly reduce the amount of fats, grease and solids that enter your septic tank and ultimately clog its drainfield.

Septic tank/algae bloom connection exists

In South Florida, phosphorus and nitrogen from septic tanks can contribute to algae blooms in area waterways.

In a Nov, 8, 2017, press conference hosted by the Florida Chamber of Commerce in Tallahassee, Dr. Brian Lapointe of Harbor Branch Oceanic Institute and Florida Atlantic University, pointed to his decades of research showing that leaking septic tanks are a major cause of pollution into the coastal waterways.

“In the research I have conducted on behalf of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, the science points directly to human pollution as the number one cause of what’s imperiling our state’s local water sources,” said Dr. Lapointe. “A leading cause of this pollution are aging septic tanks, which are leaking into the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie Estuary.”

While the FAU study pointed to the pollution from septic tanks near coastal waterways, this is an issue for rural counties as well.

In Okeechobee County, Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough is historically high in nutrient load, contributing 21 percent of the total phosphorus load into the lake while just 7 percent of the water inflow. From 2013 to 2017, Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough averaged an annual total phosphorus load of 104 metric tons, according to South Florida Water Management District data. According to information provided at an October Okeechobee County Commission meeting, removal of the Treasure Island/Taylor Creek area septic tanks could reduce the annual nutrient load into the lake by 27.5 tons of phosphorus a year. The county commission has (so far unsuccessfully) sought state help for a septic-to-sewer conversion project for the homes on that waterway.

Publisher Katrina Elsken can be reached at

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