Florida has relied on septic tanks to treat sewage and wastewater for decades, but as the state has grown, the question of overuse and contamination has led lawmakers to push for increased oversight and a shift to sewers where possible.
After the toxic algae and red tide outbreak of 2018, that push is back.
“For too many years, politicians have talked about, 'We’ll fix the Indian River Lagoon,' and then nothing is ever done about it,” Rep. Randy Fine (R-Brevard County) said.
Fine is pushing for up to $50 million in matching funds to help remove septic tanks and connect sewer systems.
The area of the state that Fine represents has been dealing with septic issues for years. It is estimated that more than 30 percent of the nitrogen that flows into the Indian River Lagoon comes from septic tanks.
In 2018, the Brevard County Commission passed an ordinance requiring all new septic systems on the barrier islands and inland areas within 200 feet of the lagoon to be built with more expensive, low-nitrogen septic systems. In addition, the county is using its half-cent sales tax to upgrade existing systems or connect people to sewer where available.
Florida is home to more than 3 million septic tanks, 600,000 of which are along the Indian River Lagoon. The state recommends owners have septic systems inspected every three years and pumped every three to five years. But that doesn’t always happen, and it is currently estimated that more than 10 percent of the septic systems in the state are failing, causing problems on both coasts.
“These water fights these environmental fights they aren’t partisan, they’re regional,” Fine said.
That regional approach means Fine is not the only member of the Legislature with a water bill.
Sarasota Republican Sen. Joe Gruters has his own bill (SB-214), which would update the state septic database in addition to “requiring owners of onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems to have such systems periodically inspected.”
But, Florida has been down this path before.
In 2010, the state implemented a plan to require inspections of septic tanks every five years. However, by 2011 lawmakers started to grow concerned about the cost of inspections and repairs and by 2012 the requirements were gone.
Now, after another summer of water problems, the state is returning its focus on the role played by leaky septic systems.