Sewage issues, fish kill threat linger after Hurricane Irma
INDIAN HARBOUR BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Mike Dana gazes at a caramel-colored canal where fish seldom bite, dolphins rarely swim, but where clumps of feces sometimes can be seen floating past in the lazy water.
“There was always a show,” Dana says of the birds, fish and other “actors” he once watched from his home, dock and boat. “There’s nothing now. I’d never imagined this.”
A brown curtain of death has closed that wildlife “show” that Dana and others along the Indian River Lagoon once watched with delight. The brown algae that now takes center stage chokes the food web in an unimaginable stranglehold, and has been reappearing just about every year since it first bloomed in 2012.
First, it was the decades of growth beyond what sewage systems and septic tanks could handle. Then Hurricane Irma happened, exposing the weak underbelly of our aged local sewer systems. The Sept. 11 hurricane overwhelmed wastewater treatment plants across the region, but especially Brevard County’s, causing some 30 million gallons of sewage to be dumped into the lagoon, delivering the key ingredients — nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich nutrients — that the algae needs to thrive.
Now, yet another recent study points to widespread leaky sewage systems and septic tanks as a main driver of the algae growth spiral.
Local officials have known about the scourge of aging infrastructure and septic tanks for decades. But it was the blow delivered by Irma that drew furious residents to skewer county officials during public meetings and via email for allowing the problem to fester so long. Irma spurred many to question whether government is doing enough, fast enough, to fix sewage problems — or properly spending Brevard’s half-cent sales tax targeted for lagoon cleanups.
Those who watch human waste float by multimillion-dollar homes sum up their frustrations in one word: disgust. They’re sick of brown, rancid water, yellow health department warning signs, and what they see as whitewashing, slap-on-the-wrist state fines that make the next big spill all but inevitable.
“They are Third World problems in a First World county,” said Scott Hoffman, a Satellite Beach resident who has been pushing Brevard to fix its sewage problems and improve emergency planning to keep the next big spill out of the lagoon. “They know it’s going to happen.”
Hoffman no longer sees fish “boil” in the water behind his Satellite Beach home. Now, he and his neighbors see tempers boiling over as their lifetime property investments fall at the mercy of a relentless algae and what they say is a lack of urgency from their government. Some talk of lawsuits or other ways of raising heck to protect their property and the lagoon.
This past week, Satellite Beach residents watched county smoke tests to find sewer pipe leaks — and where there’s smoke, there’s ire.
“Indian Harbour and Satellite Beach is really one big septic system,” Hoffman lamented.
Two years ago this past week, a “brown-tide” algae breakdown clogged canals with rotting fish. Fish carcasses floated up from Titusville to Palm Bay — a 50-mile area spanning a third of the lagoon — but mostly centering in the Banana River in Cocoa Beach.
Biologists recently warned that the lagoon has reached similar algae overload that could cause a similar die-off in coming weeks.
The 2016 brown tide oxygen crash hit the already vulnerable lagoon. Biologists say the lagoon has shifted in recent years to more small algae species that cycle nutrients more quickly, rather than seagrass and other plants that sequester them for longer periods of time. That “phase shift” leads to more fish kills.
Some areas, such as the southern Mosquito Lagoon in northern Brevard, had never fully cleared of the seemingly endless string of algae blooms that began with a green algae “superbloom” in 2011 that killed off about half of the lagoon’s seagrass.
Ecologists consider seagrass a key indicator of an estuary’s health and the cornerstone of the food web. It provides vital nursery habitat for juvenile fish, crabs and other marine life. When it dies, fish and other species flee elsewhere, and sediments cloud the water, making it more difficult for the bottom plants to grow back.
The brown tide algae called Aureoumbra lagunensis appeared in lagoon samples as early as 2005, but not at bloom levels until 2012. It bloomed again in 2013 and 2015, and peaked in 2016.
The lagoon seemed to get a brief break from the algae’s ill effects. Then Irma helped it bloom again by early this year.
The storm overtaxed sewer plants throughout Florida, most of which are designed to handle double their usual daily flow. But when hurricanes bring triple or more volume, utilities must put the water somewhere. Often, that’s the lagoon.
Brevard County’s utility, alone, discharged 22 million gallons from facilities in the South Beaches, Port St. John and Sykes Creek in the days after the storm. Most of the sewage went into the Anchor Drive canal in Satellite Beach. That discharge drew a $14,237 fine — $13,737 of which the county can put toward sewage system fixes, environmental restoration or donation of environmentally sensitive land, instead of paying a cash penalty.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection also ordered the county by Dec. 31, 2020, to complete a $10 million project to replace 3.5 miles of sewer pipe from East Eau Gallie Boulevard south to Oakland Avenue in Indialantic.
DEP officials say they focus enforcement on cleaning up environmental problems, rather than on fines. Critics say that approach provides little incentive to fix problems.
“The amount that we can penalize is prescribed in the law, so we work from the formula in that law to determine how much to penalize them,” said Dave Herbster, a DEP spokesman. “We’re doing our job, which is to hold the utility accountable, and work toward doing better next time.”
From Sept. 12 to Oct. 5, Palm Bay’s water reclamation facility on Troutman Boulevard had unauthorized releases of about 8.1 million gallons of treated wastewater to surface water.
Based on the information the city provided, DEP determined the discharge resulted in temporary impacts not considered to cause significant environmental harm, threat to human health or a likely violation of surface water quality standards.
DEPfined the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority $10,500 for several Irma-related spills totaling about 10.5 million gallons of treated and untreated sewage at its sewer plant and several lift stations.
In November, more than 3 million gallons of raw sewage went in the lagoon when a pipe broke on State Road A1A in Vero Beach.
Irma’s spills arrived just as new research chalked up yet more evidence that sewage spills and leaking septic tanks are main drivers of brown tide and other harmful algae in the lagoon.
“We’ve known this,” Peter Barile, an environmental consultant in Melbourne, said of sewage and septic tanks contribution to the lagoon’s decline. His recent paper in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin found signs of widespread sewage pollution feeding excess lagoon seaweed.
Other Florida coastal communities solved their sewage problems decades ago, Barile notes. Florida completed a $1 billion conversion of 76,000 septic tanks in the Florida Keys to advance sewage treatment, after the world’s third largest reef was dying from sewage impacts.
“Compared to Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and the Florida Keys, we really are the ugly stepchild,” Barile said of Brevard County. “They’re really running out of wiggle room to say this is a small problem.”
The Indian River Lagoon Act in 1990 forced sewer plants to stop discharging about 50 million daily gallons of sewage into the lagoon. But, since then, few utilities converted sewer plants to advanced high-nutrient removal treatment, Barile notes in his paper. He calls for stricter setbacks and other rules to keep septic tank waste from the lagoon.
“We should have a much better standard than what we have on the books now,” Barile said of septic tanks. His paper estimates there are 91,630 septic tanks in Brevard.
Florida allows some lagoon-side sewer plants to do wet weather emergency discharges for up to 90 days per year, Barile’s paper notes.
His research inspired the Florida Fly Fishing Association, a group of about 55 members, to get involved and pressure county officials to fix the sewage issues.
“There are guides in our program that are losing money. It’s just absolutely terrible,” said Jim Glass of Melbourne, a retired civil engineer and a member of the Florida Fly Fishing Association. “We’re all just devastated about what happened. It’s sickening.”
Glass worked for a consulting firm that designed upgrades to the main sewer plant on Tampa Bay in the 1980s, and other projects to help the bay recover from seagrass loss caused by pollution.
“The problem was getting rid of sewage, and that’s what needs to be done,” Glass said.
Some lagoon advocates, however, are afraid of taking the emphasis away from dredging out organic muck that built up over decades, partially because of algae blooms. It’s the “low-hanging fruit” many scientists believe likely to yield the most significant ecological returns, the fastest.
“I think that wastewater is a problem,” said Leesa Souto, executive director of the nonprofit Marine Resources Council in Palm Bay.
“I don’t think that paper changes the game at all,” Souto said of Barile’s study.
Sewage alone doesn’t completely explain the frequency and duration of the blooms, adds Ed Phlips, a professor of algal physiology and ecology at University of Florida.
“The reality is that septic tank leakage and sewage overflow are a contributor to nutrient loads,” Phlips said. “It would be hard to say that, that by itself is the single most important driving factor. Some of these really widespread blooms. ... It’s just one of the contributing factors of what’s going on.”
Fertilizer is another factor.
Residents expected rainy season fertilizer bans enacted lagoonwide a few years ago to have improved the lagoon by now.
Limiting fertilizer use costs nothing, but keeping nitrogen and phosphorus out of the lagoon via sewer and stormwater projects is expensive. Based on the cost of recent stormwater projects, Brevard County officials estimate they would have to spend $1,000 for each pound of nitrogen removed. That’s $1.4 billion for municipalities along the lagoon, to eliminate the 1.4 million pounds EPA and the state propose over 15 years, from northern Volusia County to Fort Pierce Inlet.
Brevard officials defend current spending priorities. All aren’t convinced the science merits a shift to more major sewage fixes.
“And, although there is a lack of scientific consensus on Pete Barile’s exact scientific methods and conclusions, there is strong consensus that human waste is a significant problem in the lagoon,” Virginia Barker, director of the Brevard County’s Natural Resources Management Department, said via email.
Barker says about a $73.5 million, or 24 percent, of the $303 million lagoon cleanup plan — funded by the half-cent sales tax — will go toward sewer plant upgrades, septic-to-sewer conversions, and upgrades to advanced septic and other wastewater-related projects.
In response to Irma sewage overflows, funding to help homeowners repair leaks in their connections to the sewer system also could be one of this year’s revisions to the county’s 10-year lagoon cleanup plan.
More than $8 million of the $21.6 million in requests just reviewed and recommended by a citizens’ oversight committee for this year’s cleanup plan revision are for human waste-related projects, Barker said. This is in addition to the $138 million approved in 2014 for county utility’s capital improvements, she said, and the improvements city sewer systems are doing or planning in coming years.
This month, the Florida Legislature freed up more potential county money. It passed a tax reform package that included a bill sponsored by Rep. Randy Fine of Palm Bay that expanded allowable use of tourist development taxes. It would allow Brevard to spend more on the lagoon by directing money from Brevard’s 5 percent Tourist Development Tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals.
The good news is that taxes collected from Brevard County’s half-percent sales tax for the lagoon cleanup are exceeding expectation.
Barker said the county initially estimated revenues from the lagoon sales tax would total about $34 million a year, or $340 million over 10 years.
The tax collection started Jan. 1, 2017, and by the end of the county’s budget year on Sept. 30, Barker estimates that $81.83 million will have been collected, which is $22.33 million more than initially projected for the first 21 months of collection.
“So that provides many, many opportunities,” Barker said, including speeding up the competition of existing projects and adding new projects to the plan.”
During a recent county budget workshop, however, Brevard County Commissioner Kristine Isnardi questioned the way the county is adding new projects to the plan.
“Those excess funds now, at least in my opinion, should be used to improve failing sewage and drainage and to improve our drainage that we have now,” Isnardi said.
While Barker might be depending on some scientific reasons for putting new projects on the list, Isnardi said there is a more practical concern: public perception of sewage discharges.
“You can run all the numbers you want,” Isnardi said. “You want the public to support the Indian River Lagoon tax program. That’s part of it, too. That’s part of the buy-in with the public.”
But Duane DeFreese, executive director of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, worries all the focus on addressing Irma-induced sewage releases could delay other projects.
“I’m optimistic we’re on the right path.” DeFreese told Canaveral Port Authority commissioners during a recent presentation. “But we need to be really careful that we don’t start to try to politically cherry-pick one type of action versus another. And I’m seeing that now. I worry that the focus shifts over to that wastewater unique failure, and then the hard stuff — the septic-to-sewer, the long-term stormwater — kind of gets forgotten in that political moment.”
Muck removal “alone won’t get us there. It’s what I call a full diet,” DeFreese said. “We need to be reducing nutrients everywhere we can get them and as fast as we can go. I think that’s the big push now is let’s make sure we have enough money to do the job.”
Six months after Irma, Mike Dana rode his boat Wednesday to the Anchor Drive canal — ground zero for Brevard’s sewage discharges. The canal still bears the grayish, cloudy tint of sewage. But from the helm, Dana sees some silver linings in the canals surrounding Lansing Island, hints that the wildlife “show” will go on.
“This is called hope,” he says, pointing to several pelicans sitting under the Lansing Island bridge.
Other actors appear: a dolphin, a cormorant.
“Welcome back,” Dana blurts out, as the cormorant takes off from a nearby dock.
Information from: Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.), http://www.floridatoday.com