County staff working with consulting firm to prioritize septic systems for future removal
The estimate for replacing the remaining septic tanks in unincorporated Sarasota County is between $472 million and $851 million, the manager of the county’s Utility Engineering Division told the County Commission this week.
And those figures do not include the added expense of infrastructure, including new sewer lines, Gregory Rouse said during a July 13 presentation.
Staff believes the county’s Public Utilities Service Area has about 23,633 septic tanks, Rouse noted.
In 1997, when the county began implementing the Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program, the cost was approximately $14,500 per sewer connection after a septic tank was removed, he pointed out. For the each of the remaining septic tanks in that project area, the estimated expense per connection has climbed to around $20,000, he continued.
For an increased level of service — including, for example, the construction of new water lines as well as the sewer infrastructure — the cost has risen to approximately $36,000, Rouse said.
Of the 47,864 septic tanks staff believes still are in service countywide, Rouse told the commissioners. 49% are in the county’s Public Utilities Department service area. The City of North Port has the second highest number: 16,961, or about 35% of the total.
During the 21 years that the Phillippi Creek program has been in place, Rouse noted, the county has eliminated 9,932 septic tanks in that watershed. An estimated 10,597 septic tanks remain, he said.
When that program began, Rouse explained, the County Commission’s goal was to protect the health and safety of its citizens and to improve the water quality in Phillippi Creek, which is a tributary of Sarasota Bay.
In April of this year, Rouse continued, staff began working with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm — which has offices in Sarasota and Tampa — on a new plan that would lead to the prioritization of septic tank replacements in the rest of the unincorporated part of the county. The anticipated completion of that initiative is April 2022, Rouse added.
Additionally, this year, the Florida Legislature passed Senate Bill 712, which is called the Clean Waterways Act. Among its facets, the new law addresses septic tanks and treatment plant upgrades. It also transferred the regulation of septic tanks from the Florida Department of Health to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). By July 1, 2022, Rouse noted, FDEP must adopt rules regarding the installation of new septic tanks.
A short-range goal for FDEP is to develop a plan to get rid of septic systems that affect water bodies that are categorized as impaired, based on analyses of excess nutrients — which can feed red tide blooms, for example, as scientists have explained — and other contaminants.
“There will most likely be increased funding opportunities going forward,” Rouse pointed out. Those counties that have plans for septic system replacement programs, he continued, would likely be “first in line” for funding and most likely to receive such financial support, he said.
Already, Rouse noted, 40% of Florida’s counties either have replacement programs or are developing them.
As part of the county initiative with Kimley-Horn’s assistance, Rouse told the commissioners, an analysis has been underway to determine the density of septic tanks — the number per acre.
Because of the Phillippi Creek program, he continued, North County has far fewer septic systems per acre than South County. The heaviest concentration of septic tanks is in the area of Dona Bay and Alligator Creek, he said.
The analysis is looking into the impairment of the county’s watersheds in the context of the density of septic tanks, Rouse indicated.
Showing the board members a slide with color coding representing density, he pointed out that the dark gray areas, which marked high bacteria levels in water bodies, also were the sites where “the density is extremely high …”
The next step in the work with Kimley-Horn, Rouse continued, is to conduct stakeholder meetings. Staff and the consulting firm’s representatives also will be working on cost/benefit analyses for specific planning areas, Rouse said. Then the goal will be to identify funding sources for replacing septic systems, he added.
Staff is planning on a July 2022 presentation to the commissioners, he said, after the work has been completed.
None of the commissioners offered comments about the undertaking, except for Chair Alan Maio. In a later exchange with Mike Mylett, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, Maio emphasized the need to eliminate septic systems.