“Fountains of Youth” or “Fountains of Yuk?”


Executive Summary


What are septic systems?

Legislation and policy changes – “Backed up and bogged down”

Local government ordinances – Filling the policy gaps

Extreme examples of septic tank use-abuse

  1. Orange County
  2. Charlotte County
  3. Indian River Lagoon
    1. Martin County

Water Quality Impacts of septic systems

  1. Springs


City of Tallahassee

Leon County

Wakulla County

Wekiva Springs/River

  1. Near-shore reefs

Florida Keys

Where there’s a will, there’s a way! Examples of proactive local protection

  • Sanibel
  • Marco Island
  • Florida Keys
  • Sarasota
  • Santa Rosa Island Island (Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach and Ft Walton Beach)
  • Vero Beach
  • Stuart
  • Cape Coral
  • Orange County

Climate Change and septic tanks

Conclusions and Recommendations – Six immediate actions to reverse septic tank pollution




This report is focused on the use of septic tanks in Florida. There are approximately 2.6 million septic tanks currently permitted in Florida.[1] That represents approximately 12% of all septic tanks in the United States. Some of them are working quite well and provide the best technology for the location and situation. Many others are not working well, are not properly maintained, are not the best option, are not environmentally sound and should not be allowed to prevail into the future. On average, 40% of septic tanks do not function properly. The major problem is that they contain significant amounts of bacterial and viral pathogens which can and do pose a significant health risk.

According to the Department of Health, less than one percent of the state’s systems — about 17,000 — are being inspected and serviced by licensed maintenance professionals each year. In most cases, septic systems are only checked or serviced when they fail. And more than half of the state’s septic systems are at least 30 years old.

Leaky septic tanks have been identified by health and environmental officials as major sources of ground and surface water pollution.

Everyday new septic tanks are installed across Florida. They often exacerbate this problem, even though the issues are widely known and discussed. How can this be happening in 2015, in a state that has so much to lose from the irresponsible handling of raw sewage? That question is discussed in this report. We also discuss the alternatives to septic tanks and the road-blocks that prevent good policy and sound science from becoming the driving factors.

As you read this report, you will begin to marvel how a state that is surrounded by water on three sides; is home to more springs than anywhere else on the planet; is the 3rd most populous state in the US; and is totally dependent on tourism for a functional economy, could find itself literally swimming in sewage. Feigning helplessness, the state legislature and the Governor’s office have refused to take decisive action to address Florida’s sewage problems.

Septic tanks are not the only sewage treatment and disposal issue in Florida that have been raising a stink for many years. There are also thousands of miles of leaking sewage lines. There are sewage treatment plants that frequently violate even lax permits and others that have NEVER complied with their permits. There are sewage injection systems that cause sewage effluent to contaminate underground sources of drinking water[2]. There are microbes and viruses that are allowed to go untreated before the sewage effluent in which they thrive, is sprayed on yards, ball-fields, golf courses and dozens of other public areas where human contact is a daily occurrence. There are combined stormwater/sewage overflows. There are hundreds of sewage treatment facilities around the state that have outdated equipment and infrastructure that malfunction more often than not and that have no plans or money to fix their problems.

Adding insult to injury, there is the problem of sea-level rise and climate change. In the past several decades since septic tanks became popular in Florida, our oceans have risen several inches. Experts tell us, and any keen observer can see, that the upward movement of the waters surrounding Florida continues, more and more rapidly all the time. What does this mean for coastal homes, neighborhoods and communities that currently rely on septic systems for sewage disposal? This report shares some concerns from around the state.

The good news is that there are many local governments in the state that are working hard to find solutions to the problems being created by septic tanks. Funding seems to be the widespread, perenial problem, yet many local leaders are finding ways to either convince their communities to pay for better treatment and disposal of sewage or they are finding outside sources of revenue to pay for upgrades from septics to central sewer, or they are using a combination of the two.

We see valiant efforts also where there are various local ordinances designed to alleviate the problems and help protect local residents. However, with little or no support/encouragement from the state government or state agencies that should be taking responsibility for developing and implementing state-wide policies, many local governments are overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. Good policies must not only be implemented, but must be enforced and well funded. Good policies also require planning for the future and in water-logged, salty Florida, that means frequent replacement of equipment and infrastructure. In a state that refuses to make development pay its own way, many communities are well past the point where it would have been easy to make the public pay not only for new infrastructure, but also to pre-pay for the continued maintenance and upkeep of that infrastructure as it ages.

Whether you are talking about sewage plants or individual septic tanks, there are far, far too many that have long-ago rusted out and can only offer temporary storage and/or cursory treatment of our human waste.

The Florida Department of Health carries the burden of permitting septic tanks and trying to protect public health from unsafe conditions caused by sewage. Inadequate funding, political interference (locally and on the state level) and sheer volume of the problem render their well-intentioned efforts little more than a band-aid effect for a massive wound. In this report you will find examples about how and where septic tanks are used and misused around the state.

There is some interesting background information on the history of sewage disposal in Florida and perhaps some surprising facts about how laws have been weakened in more recent decades in order to accommodate and encourage even more reckless behavior by the development community. Many communities are trying to reverse this trend.

We touch on a few examples of the worse cases of water pollution from septic tanks around the state. You may be surprised to find out that you are fishing or swimming in rivers and estuaries that are grossly polluted with septic tank run-off and drainage. You may be inspired to take action and help bring needed changes.

This report closes with some inspiring examples of what some Florida communities have accomplished when citizens pulled together to develop sound plans, volunteered their own financial resources and created a safer cleaner environment through responsible sewage treatment and disposal.

Acknowledging that sewage is not a topic of broad interest generally, we still hope that this report will help galvanize public demand for good policies that will protect the public health, protect Florida’s springs and other surface and ground waters and will bring an end to the long era of burying our heads in the sand about septic tanks – realizing that the sand may hold a drainfield, or worse.


In a perfect world humans, like most animals, would know better than to foul their own nests. If not by instinct, then we should have an educated fear of being sloppy with how we handle and dispose of our waste. We have understood for eons that it is dangerous and distasteful to leave our droppings where we or others may revisit them unknowingly. Yet we Floridians often find ourselves having unpleasant encounters with human waste – ours and/or others’. Often we don’t realize that we have been swimming in sewage. Many people never make the connection between upper respiratory or gastrointestinal illnesses and a recent dip in the creek or bay nearby.

After decades of relying on septic tanks as the “go-to” technology for a rapidly growing population, nearly 1/3 of all Floridians now rely on septic tanks for disposal of their sewage. Today we know that was largely a mistake but the price tag for most alternatives is steep. After decades of weakening septic tank laws and rules, Florida now finds it uncomfortable to turn around and head back to sanity.

One valiant legislative effort to require inspections of septic tanks every five years, never even lived long enough to cause one single inspection. The fear evidently was that people would discover that their tanks were no longer viable and would need to be replaced. Some people simply feared a $250 pump-out charge. The legislature backed down and went into stall mode.

Meanwhile in this economic downturn, we are still permitting about 6,000 new septic tanks per year. Some of these are on streets where the local government is moving as quickly as possible to convert problem septic tanks to central sewer – ON THE SAME STREET! A property owner can’t be denied a building permit and a septic tank permit in a platted subdivision. If the central sewer hook-up is still a couple of years away . . . then the septic tank is the only solution. But what will happen when the central sewer hook-up becomes available? Will the new homeowner be required to pay the hook-up fee? If the home/septic system is on or near a canal or other impaired water body that cannot and should not be burdened with untreated sewage, then how do you allow it to stay? State and local laws may require the homeowner to hook up to central sewer as soon as it is available.[i]

These are some of the questions discussed and explored in this paper. We talked with local governments and utilities around the state and share many of their thoughts, challenges and concerns. We talked to the Department of Health in Tallahassee and on the local level to get their perspective and insights.

We hope these discussions will help everyone understand a variety of perspectives on the issue of septic tanks. Eventually the state will be forced to revisit current policy and set new guidelines for new septic tanks as well as existing ones that may be causing problems for our springs, rivers, bays, lakes and coastal areas. Tough decisions will become easier when there is broader understanding of the problem and stronger support for a proactive direction.



We’ve come a long way baby . . . since the early 70’s when septic systems got really popular in Florida. In those days, a “system” consisted largely of a tank, a drainfield and the soil around the drainfield.

The tank is to allow settling, separation and storage of solids. A simple standard septic tank is typically 1000 to 2000 gallons. The tank will have typically two inspection openings one inlet opening coming from the house and one outlet opening going to the distribution box.

A typical drainfield is a trench (or bed) with 6” to 36” of gravel, plastic pipe is then placed on top of the gravel.  More gravel is placed over the pipe and covered with a permeable barrier to prevent topsoil from migrating down and clogging the gravel. Topsoil is then used to cover the trenches with a slight crown to encourage rain run-off.

Septic tanks convert fecal matter, urea, and other wastes into a sludge that remains in a tank.  Liquid is then conveyed through the yard and ground through perforated plastic pipe and drain fields. As sludge in the tank builds up, biological activity is reduced.  Seasonal use of septic systems, common in much of the state, limits effective treatment.  It takes about 30 days to develop biological treatment when a home is vacant for a period and then reoccupied.  During this time, little sewage treatment is achieved.  Septic systems work best in rural areas that have low density, more land, and are further from lakes, rivers, and the coastal estuarine.

The soil acts somewhat as a filter.  Bacteria also thrive in shallow soils and the 2 to 3 feet of soil under/around the drainfield act as a polishing filter removing any surviving pathogens.  A portion of the nutrients (nitrogen and phosphates) are wicked up by the plant life covering the field and more nitrogen is changed to a gas form and/or diluted. Approximately 30% of the liquid is returned to the atmosphere through evaporation/evapotranspiration.

There are of course limitations to this process: although these systems work fine under ideal conditions, ideal sites are rare, especially in Florida where there is less and less high/dry land every year.  High water tables, slow soils that won’t perk, soils that perk too fast (effluent needs to move through the soil slowly for adequate treatment to take place), a lack of soil, or a nearby body of water (these will be impacted by a septic tank that is anywhere between 150 feet to ¼ mile away) where nutrient pollution is an issue, are all conditions that should not be ignored when installing a septic tank.

According to a Florida DEP study, normally very little nitrogen reduction occurs in a conventional septic tank. The primary processing of nitrogen is ammonification, the bacterial conversion of organic nitrogen to ammonia and ammonium ion (Washington State DOH, 2005). Some of the ammonia species are reconverted back to organic nitrogen via cell growth, but a net increase in ammonium concentration occurs in the septic tank. [3]

Numerous studies show that most Florida septic systems, new or old, maintained or not, are simply not designed or installed to adequately protect our waterways.  They do not adequately treat pollutants such as fecal matter, viruses, and pharmaceuticals, which are health issues, and nutrients, such as nitrogen, which create aquatic growth such as algae blooms, darken our waters, and deplete fish life.  Septic system effluent migrates from our yards to our waterways.  Because of the high water table which exists in most of Florida, especially during the rainy season and the close proximity of septic systems to our waterways, there is inadequate earth filtering space to treat fecal matter before it enters our waterways.

Many septic systems do not operate properly during the summer months when the ground water table is higher. Often, the water table is at or above the drain field in the yard.  Human waste then leaks into the soils, ground water, and surrounding areas.

Necessity being the mother of invention, people came up with purported solutions for these problems.  Today you have mound systems where soil is brought in and the drainfield is built on top of the existing site to deal with high water tables or slow perking soils. There are also systems like sand or peat filters, biofilters or aerobic systems involving artificial forced aeration systems. The State of Florida regulations refer to a septic system as an Onsite Sewage Treatment and Disposal System or OSTDS. The septic tank is only one component of a properly designed OSTDS. By definition, an OSTDS can contain any one or more of the following components: septic tank; subsurface drainfield; aerobic treatment unit (ATU); graywater tank; laundry wastewater tank; grease interceptor; pump tank; waterless, incinerating or organic waste-composing toilet; and sanitary pit privy. An OSTDS is not a “package plant.” The system must provide for subsurface effluent disposal and must not have any open tanks or open treatment units. In 1997, the US Environmental Protection Agency publicly recognized “onsite systems…as potentially viable, low-cost, long-term, decentralized approaches to wastewater treatment if they are planned, designed, installed, operated, and maintained properly.”

A critical component of a successful septic tank system is periodic preventive maintenance which is required to remove the irreducible solids that settle and gradually fill the tank, reducing its efficiency. According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, in the United States it is the home-owners’ responsibility to maintain their septic system. Those who disregard the requirement will eventually be faced with extremely costly repairs when solids escape the tank and clog the clarified liquid effluent disposal system. A properly maintained system, on the other hand, can last for decades or possibly even a lifetime.

Septic tanks by themselves are ineffective at removing nitrogen compounds that have potential to cause algal blooms in waterways into which affected water from a septic system finds its way. This can be remedied by using a nitrogen-reducing technology, or by simply ensuring that the leach field is properly sited to prevent direct entry of effluent into bodies of water. In most cases, no septic tank should be located less than 150’ from a water body and usually much more distance is necessary to protect water quality.

The soil’s capacity to retain phosphorus is usually large enough to cope with the load through a normal residential septic tank. An exception occurs when septic drain fields are located in sandy or coarser soils on property adjoining a water body. Because of limited particle surface area, these soils can become saturated with phosphates. Phosphates will progress beyond the treatment area, posing a threat of eutrophication to surface waters.[7]

In areas with high population density, groundwater pollution levels often exceed acceptable limits. Even the most conscientious strategies will not provide long-term solutions and will become ineffective as a primary remediation effort.

In areas adjacent to water bodies with fish or shellfish intended for human consumption, improperly maintained and failing septic systems contribute to pollution levels that can force harvest restrictions and/or commercial or recreational harvest closures. Consequently, adverse health effects may occur, in addition to the adverse effects suffered by local economies. This is the case in many areas around Florida.


Chapter 2 – Legislation and policy changes – “Backed-up and bogged down”

Since 1973 the Department of Health has had general supervisory authority over sewage but there have been no specific statutory requirements for it to follow, although it could have promulgated rules.

In 1975 Florida Statute 381.272 was passed and stated that subdivisions of 50 or fewer lots with each lot being a minimum of one-half acre could be developed with a private well and individual sewage disposal. Subdivisions of 100 or fewer lots with each lot being a minimum of one-third acre could be developed with a public water system and individual sewage disposal.

In the same statute in 1979 and 1981 it was stated that residential subdivisions with a public water system may utilize individual sewage disposal facilities, provided there are no more than four lots per acre, thus increasing the density from one third to one quarter acre.

In 1983 the law was tightened slightly to require at least a 50 foot setback from waterways. Also the drainfields were required to be at least two feet above groundwater at seasonal high. Prior to 1983 the setback was 25 feet and the drainfield only had to be six inches above the water table. More than half of all septic tanks in Florida were installed before 1983 and they were all grandfathered in.

By 1985 the same four lots per acre was in the statute but provisions were added regarding the maximum daily flow per acre per day at 1500 gallons, and provided satisfactory drinking water can be obtained, and all distance, setback, soil condition, and water table requirements are met

In 2000 the law was further relaxed by increasing the maximum daily flow to 2500 gallons per day. The four lots per acre restriction remained

In 2008, with pressure growing from the public to address the obvious pollution problem being caused by over-reliance on septic tanks in Florida, the Legislature funded with $900,000 a study bill [HB 5001] that instructed:

“…the Department of Health to further develop cost-effective nitrogen reduction strategies. The Department of Health shall contract, by request for proposal, for Phase I of an anticipated 3-year project to develop passive strategies for nitrogen reduction that complement use of conventional onsite wastewater treatment systems. The project shall be controlled by the Department of Health’s Research Review and Advisory Committee and shall include the following components:

1) comprehensive review of existing or ongoing studies on passive technologies;

2) field testing of nitrogen reducing technologies at actual home sites for comparison of conventional, passive technologies and performance-based treatment systems to determine nitrogen reduction performance;

3) documentation of all capital, energy and life-cycle costs of various technologies for nitrogen reduction;

4) evaluation of nitrogen reduction provided by soils and the shallow groundwater below and down gradient of various systems; and

5) development of a simple model for predicting nitrogen fate and transport from onsite wastewater systems. A progress report shall be presented to the Executive Office of the Governor, the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives on February 1, 2009, including recommendations for funding additional phases of the study.

The bill also required the DOH to provide a cost estimate for a mandatory 5 year septic tank inspection program to be phased in over 10 years.

In 2009 the study was not funded but work continued with funding from 2008.  The final report was put off until May 2010. The mandate for the DOH remained the same as in the 2008 legislation except a clause was added that said:

“a state agency may not adopt or implement a rule or policy that:

(a) Mandates or establishes new nitrogen-reduction limits that apply to existing or new onsite sewage treatment systems;

(b) Has the effect of requiring the use of performance-based treatment systems; or

(c) Increases the cost of treatment for nitrogen reduction from onsite systems, before the study and report required in proviso following Specific Appropriation 471 is completed.”

In 2010 another $2 million was appropriated for the study and the completion date was now left open, but sometime after May 2011 a status report would be due. The DOH was instructed to wait until after the final report was submitted before any nitrogen reducing activities would begin. The prohibition in paragraph (c) of the 2009 legislation was expanded in a significant way to say:

(c) Directly requires or has the indirect effect of requiring, for nitrogen reduction, the use of performance-based treatment systems or any similar technology; provided the Department of Environmental Protection administrative orders recognizing onsite system modifications, developed through a basin management action plan adopted pursuant to section 403.067, Florida Statutes, are not subject to the above restrictions where implementation of onsite system modifications are phased in after completion of Phase 2, except that no onsite system modification developed in a basin management action plan (BMAP) shall directly or indirectly require the installation of performance-based treatment systems.

The 2010 legislature also specified that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would provide maximum technical oversight to the DOH on the study. This was a new requirement.

Also in 2010 new legislation was passed that required septic tank inspections every five years, created a grant program for low-income homeowners and allowed certain homeowners to request a one-time, one-year inspection extension.

“Pay a little bit now or all of us will pay a whole lot later,” said former state Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who spearheaded the 2010 law. The law was signed by Governor Charlie Crist and was supposed to go into effect in 2011.

A state Senate analysis found that the inspection requirement would create hundreds “if not thousands” of private sector jobs because of a shortage of certified septic tank inspectors. The Department of Health estimated that annual septic tank inspections would grow from 17,000 a year to 500,000.[4]

But concerns over the cost to homeowners quickly escalated. During a November 2010 special session the Legislature passed a measure to stall implementation of the law, and then waited until Gov. Rick Scott took office to send the bill to the governor’s office to prevent a possible veto from Crist. Scott allowed the delay to become law without his signature.

At that point things got worse when counties were put in charge of inspections and could choose not to do them at all. The repeal was part of a new law, SB820, which required each county with a first magnitude spring to adopt a septic tank evaluation program unless it chose to opt out with a 60% majority vote of its county council/commission. Unfortunately, this legislation required that the counties decide within a short time frame whether to implement these requirements. As a result, all 19 counties in the state with first magnitude springs opted out of the required inspections

By 2011, many legislators who voted for the Constantine bill, reversed their position, including State Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, who lead a fight to have it removed or replaced because in his opinion, the law was met with almost “unanimous disapproval.”

Meanwhile the study received no funding to complete Phase 2 and Phase 3.

In 2012 the study was funded again with $1.5 million but the contractor only spent $1,103,566.00. The language remained virtually the same and still contained no deadline for the final report, but said it would be after February 2013.

In 2013 another $184,798,000 was appropriated and this time an expected completion date for the report was given as January 2015.

In 2014 $650,000 was appropriated for the study and no expected completion date was mentioned. The same prohibitions contained in prior years remained in the bill.

An interim report was submitted to the Governor’s office from the Department of Health requesting another extension of time for the submittal of the final report until January 2016. The Department of Health is expecting an appropriation in 2015 of $261,636.00 to complete the study.

On the regulatory side of the issue, in February 2014, the Florida DEP did prepare a document for the Technical Advisory Committee for Bacteria and Pathogen Risks in Recreational Waters titled:

“Potential Sources to be Addressed and Potential Management Activities”

The document can be found at:


It is worth looking at only to help the reader fully understand how ineffective our state has become even with environmental issues that have serious and immediate public health consequences. Here is the section on addressing areas where septic tanks are causing unsafe and/or impaired waters:

“• If human waste is clearly indicated in an area with septic systems based on surface water monitoring results, then investigate contributing neighborhoods for pooling, bad odor, surface flow or other indications of failing septic systems:

  • We would like input on appropriate threshold for indication of human waste and how to focus investigation.
  • If pooling, bad odor, or surface flow is observed in areas with septic systems or wetland plants are observed where the septic tank drainfield is presumed to be located, then investigate report to DOH for immediate follow-up.
  • If there are repair permits on 15% or more per year of a neighborhood’s septic systems during the verified period (7.5 years), then implement public education campaign with recommended maintenance and management of septic systems.
  • If septic systems become inundated due to inadequate stormwater management, then responsible party alleviates flooding.”

To further understand the FL DEP’s approach to addressing septic tank pollution, please take note of the section below that is specific to Wakulla Springs.


LOCAL GOVERNMENT ORDINANCES – Filling the policy gaps in weak state policies.

Many local governments have adopted ordinances designed to help fill the gaps left by lax state policy on septic tanks. The spreadsheet at the end of this report provides a column to indicate which local governments have ordinances related to septic tanks that are more exacting or protective than state law.

Managing the use of septic tanks by local governments has been underway for a long time in Florida. As early as the 1960’s and 70’s there were local governments that insisted homeowners would connect to central sewer as soon as it became available. Based on numerous interviews with utility staff around the state, there was very little conflict over this practice. Most people who lived near the water seemed to understand that a high density of septic tanks would pollute the nearby waters. In parts of Florida that were largely populated by newcomers from northern states, people were accustomed to having central sewer service and were generally pleased to be off of septic tanks as soon as possible.

But the conversion process has been spotty and every year thousands of new septic tanks are planted in Florida’s wet and sandy soils. As water quality problems persist and worsen, local governments scramble for ways to convert to central sewage systems where possible. In interviews with utilities and local governments across the state, there seems to be almost as many different approaches to getting septics converted to central sewer as there are counties. Some cities and counties simply have ordinances in place that require connections when they become available. If you don’t voluntarily connect, then you will be charged anyway. Others use various grant programs to help subsidize connections for low and medium income neighborhoods. In some communities, private utility companies waive part of the connection fees in order to get full participation. The methods are endless, and the results are effective where there is a strong commitment on the local government level.

However, we see in some areas of the state where the affected waters are not as obvious (groundwater, springs or rivers far from where people live) greater reluctance to convert from septic tanks to central sewer systems. People may feel that their septic tanks are working just fine and so why should they pay to connect to a central system? Many in very urban areas are not frequent users of springs and lakes that are miles from their neighborhoods and therefore don’t care enough about the health of these waters to spend money to protect them.

In these situations, local elected officials are reluctant to stick their necks out to pass ordinances that mandate connecting to central sewers. One utility company said the local government has to take each individual homeowner to court to force them to connect when they won’t voluntarily comply with the county’s request. These legal wranglings are time-consuming and expensive and often don’t lead to re-election.

Consequently we see several critical areas around the state where the lack of strong and clear state policy leaves a local government little or no choice but to either ignore the problem or to be the heavy-hand. Adding insult to injury, the Florida DEP is blatantly side-stepping its delegated responsibility to implement and enforce the Clean Water Act which requires that polluted waters be identified and the pollution sources reduced or eliminated.


Extreme examples of septic tank use-abuse

Orange County –

By 1970 Orange County already had the 5th most septic tanks of any county in the state with 44,000 estimated by the U.S. census. By the early 1980’s the county was permitting between 4,000 and 5,000 new septic tanks per year. It was a booming time around Orlando and septic tanks were scattered fast and furiously, apparently with little or no awareness of the toll these basic sewage systems would take on the aquifer and nearby Wekiva Springs and river.

Soon the damage was done and the evidence was not subtle. In 2004 a Wekiva Study Area was established and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) was required to document the problem and come up with a plan to fix it. The final TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) required a 81% reduction in nutrients entering Rock Spring and a 79% reduction in nutrients entering Wekiva Spring. Five years later (three years late) the FDEP released a BMAP (plan) for how these reductions would be allocated among the various point and non-point sources.

Unfortunately, to many people who spent years fighting for the restoration of Wekiva Spring and river, the BMAP was mostly a cruel joke. The “plan” contains no meaningful reductions from septic tanks or agriculture – the two largest sources of nutrient pollution to the Wekiva basin. It calls for more studies and more monitoring as the springs and rivers continue their steep decline into total destruction.[5

Today there are 19,000 septic tanks in the Orange County service area (300,000 acres) that overlaps the Wekiva River basin (includes Rock Springs Run and Wekiva Springs Run). There are a total of 55,000 septic tanks in the basin. The water for the springs and the rivers in the basin comes from the Upper Floridan Aquifer, which also happens to be the source of drinking water for the entire area in and around Orlando. The nitrate levels are now 20 times higher than historical levels. You would think that the state would be in a panic to start fixing this very serious problem. But it is not

A study authorized and funded by the Florida Legislature in 2006 found that the total loading of nitrate to the ground and surface waters in the Wekiva basin was almost 4 million pounds per year. FDEP’s TMDL called for a 2/3 reduction in nitrogen loading to the basin. That would be 1,200 metric tons per year. Yet the BMAP only planned (in very loose terms) for a small fraction of that nitrogen to be reduced. FDEP’s BMAP addresses only sources of nitrogen to surface waters (about 8% of the problem) and totally ignores the non-point source pollution to groundwater which is about 92% of the problem. The two largest non-point sources in this case are agriculture and septic tanks.

In the final analysis, FDEP’s BMAP only calls for a 11,434 pound reduction in nitrates per year, which represents about one half of one percent of the total nitrogen loading. For a more detailed explanation of this totally deceptive maneuvering by the FDEP, please see the entire comment letter from the Center for Earth Jurisprudence referenced above.

Charlotte County –

From the early 1970’s to the early 1990’s Charlotte County developers relied heavily on septic tanks for sewage disposal. Almost every year for those two decades, the fast growing area permitted between 1,000 and 2,000 new tanks. Today, there are currently over 42,000 permitted septic tanks in this Southwest Florida coastal county. Unfortunately most of them are within ¼ mile of a canal or other waterway. At least 20,000 are on or in close proximity to a canal. When rain falls, the sewage from these tanks moves quickly to the closest waterway. The ground water level elevations throughout the year vary from around 4 feet below the surface to within 6 inches of the surface. Needless to say, the nearby receiving waters from the extensive canal system is taking the brunt of the impact from the over reliance for many years on septic tanks.

The mistakes of the past are recognized and the local governments and utilities in Charlotte County are working to eliminate as many problem septic systems as possible, as quickly as possible. See the chapter below for more information on current efforts to correct this situation.

Indian River Lagoon –

Researchers at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce have found sewage contaminating the entire 156-mile lagoon. Indian River County’s levels are comparable to Boston Harbor’s when raw sewage was dumped there, a new water analysis shows. It is estimated that there are about 120,000 septic tanks along the entire Treasure Coast.

Despite growing evidence that septic tanks play a role in the lagoon’s degradation, most elected leaders are hesitant to tackle this part of the problem, largely because many property owners oppose increased septic regulations, a Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation found.

Some scientists and regulatory agencies point to fertilizers as the main source of the nutrient runoff generating heavy algae in the lagoon. But Harbor Branch professor Brian LaPointe believes sewage carries more of the nutrients spurring algae growth.

“It’s really unclear how much fertilizer is reaching the lagoon,” LaPointe said. “But one septic tank on 4 acres — that’s enough to create a nutrient problem.”

Septic systems installed before 1983 cause the most concern. Aside from aging, the systems can be 25 feet from waterways — some are closer — and the drainfields that hold waste can be only 6 inches above groundwater.[6]

Martin County – With over 28,000 septic tanks, Martin County is one of several counties around the Indian River Lagoon that clearly needs to convert septic tanks to central sewer systems. The county is now working with Harbor Branch to identify which areas are causing the most contamination to the IRL and prioritize the conversions. The county is also engaged in a study with the FL DEP to find indications of human-derived pollution in the waters around the county.


Chapter 5 – Water quality impacts of septic systems

As one might surmise at this point, septic tanks are affecting a variety of water bodies across the state, as well as groundwater. Below are a few examples of different types of water resources that we know are being adversely affected by too many septic tanks in the wrong places.

The relative impact of OSTDS on total nitrogen levels in ground and surface waters, varies from watershed to watershed with estimates ranging from below five to more than 50 percent being attributed to septic tank systems. Below are a few examples of known water quality problems resulting from the over-use of septic tanks.

  • Springs
    • Wakulla Springs – according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection[7], there are more than 52,000 septic tanks in the Wakulla Springs basin, representing a population of more than 300,000 people. Just the thought of that many septic systems on top of the largest spring in the world is alarming. How did that happen?

After doing an extensive analysis of nitrogen inputs and loadings to groundwater in the Wakulla springs basin, FL DEP determined that more than 50% of the nitrogen in groundwater is from septic tanks. What is being done by local governments or planned in the near future to remedy this problem?

City of Tallahassee – From the Wakulla Springs Restoration Plan:

In the late 1990’s the City of Tallahassee’s wastewater sprayfield permit was challenged by environmental groups and was eventually required to upgrade its treatment process to reduce nutrients which were traveling underground to Wakulla Springs. This loading of sewage effluent was identified as the main source of nitrogen loading to the watershed at that time.

This major improvement should continue to result in improvements in water quality at Wakulla Springs. However, it will not solve the entire nutrient problem which the City readily admits. The City’s next major goal is to further reduce nitrogen loading from septic tanks in the springshed.

In 2009, there was a triparty agreement between Leon County, Wakulla County, and the City of Tallahassee, which led to the Lombardo septic tank report. Also in 2009, regional workshops were held where it was determined that septic tanks need to be the next focus if wastewater inputs are to be seriously reduced. Within the spring-shed, there are approximately 7,500 septic tanks in Leon County, 11,000 tanks in Wakulla County, and 188 tanks in Tallahassee.

The City of Tallahassee has produced an excellent video that explains how septic tanks are polluting Wakulla Springs and how this problem can be corrected. The link to the video is:



Leon County also has several proposed projects to improve water quality throughout the county. Wakulla Springs is one area that is of major concern. One is the Woodville water quality project that is included in the extension of the sales tax. Woodville has approximately 1,200 existing septic tanks that are contributing to the nutrient problems in the groundwater and Wakulla Springs. The focus of this project would be to convert to central sewer in the main part of the Woodville area and where the county wants future development to happen. The county is still seeking state and federal funding to help with the cost of this major project.

Another project is in the Oakridge/Lake Munson area. The county has secured over $2 million so far toward converting septic tanks and removing an old package plant and its land application.

The Leon County Board of Commissioners provided $50,000 for a complete countywide septic tank identification program through the Leon County Health Department. They will identify where all the septic tanks are located. There are many older homes that were constructed before there were septic tank permits required that are still using tanks that were installed 60 years ago or longer.

Leon County also established a Primary Spring Protection Zone. The county also adopted several comprehensive plan amendments. One amendment reduced the allowable development in the urban fringe area around Woodville within the PSPZ.

Wakulla County

Wakulla County has a staggering 11,000 septic tanks, a situation that lead to a policy requiring mandatory inspections of septic tanks countywide; however, this policy was eliminated in part due to legislative limitations but also because it was never fully implemented. The County’s board is interested in drafting an ordinance for inspection of septic tanks within the special area affecting Wakulla Springs. This inspection program would be implemented through an ordinance to provide more flexibility. The County also has a conservation policy to establish buffers around springs, spring runs, sinkholes, and other karst features.

There is another infrastructure policy in Wakulla County that requires performance based treatment systems for parcels less than five acres within the special area, within 150 feet of karst features, within 300 feet of a first or second magnitude springs, or on parcels less than 0.229 acres. This policy for small parcels helps to address septic tank issues within older developments, although this is not a long-term solution. There is more that can be done in the future to sewer these areas.[8]


  • Wekiva Springs/River –

Nitrate loading from septic tanks is well documented in the Wekiva Springs basin. In 2008 a TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) for the Wekiva basin promised a BMAP (Basin Management Action Plan) to implement the TMDL for nitrogen and phosphorus within two years. Six years later the DEP has produced only a draft BMAP which offers nothing useful in terms of implementing pollution reductions. The springs continue to deteriorate and the state calls for more studies. The state knows that there is almost 4 million pounds per year of nitrates pouring into the basin right now and that at least 26% is coming from septic tanks. Except for agriculture which also contributes 26% of the nutrients to the watershed, no other source comes close. http://www.dep.state.fl.us/water/wekiva/

The findings of DEP’s Phase I study are generally consistent with the Florida Department of Health Final Project Report, Nitrogen Impact of Onsite Sewage Treatment and Disposal Systems in the Wekiva Study Area (WSA), dated June 30, 2007. As well as the more recent Florida Department of Health companion studies in 2008, including groundwater monitoring in the WSA.

So why can’t the state move forward with a finalized plan, a load allocation for each pollution source and start enforcing pollution limits that are essential to saving these springs, creeks and rivers in the Wekiva basin?

Due largely to public demands and a broad coalition of environmental groups holding rallies, by early August 2014 the issue of connecting 55,000 polluting septic tanks to a central sewer system to protect Wekiva Springs had become very controversial in Orange County. Public meetings were held by the County Commission and there was vigorous public debate from both sides. Unlike other parts of the state where consensus was built that some financial investments would be required by everyone in order to protect community waters, in Orange County the homeowners who are ready to help pay to convert their septic systems to central sewer are few and far between.

The St. Johns Water Management District and the DEP offered 75% of the needed funding to convert 380 homes closest to Wekiva Springs. That left at least $2 million more for someone to pay and the septic tank owners were adamant that it would not be them. Finally the County passed a new ordinance that if at least 75% of the funding was available from outside sources, then the County can choose to pick up the tab for the remainder of the cost.

This will only address the tip of the iceberg, but a small start has begun to move forward – at last.

  • Near-shore reefs – Florida Keys

After decades of simply dumping its sewage into the ocean and watching the coral reefs rapidly become smothered in algae, the Florida Keys finally installed it’s first sewage treatment plant in 1979 in Key West. That was at least some progress.

The rest of the island chain continued to rely on cesspits, septic tanks and straight pipes to the water. Water quality throughout the Keys continued to deteriorate rapidly until 1999 when the state finally ordered the rest of Monroe County to convert to central sewers.

Nearly $1 billion have been spent on plumbing for the Keys, with some amount of wrangling over the details but with an overall desire to clean up the waters surrounding one of Florida’s most unique and threatened marine areas.

Completion of the major infrastructure project is scheduled for December 2015. Water quality sampling in areas where conversion from septic tanks to central sewer has been completed show encouraging and rewarding results with up to 77% decrease in fecal coliform and 57% decrease in enterococci bacteria in these areas.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

In spite of the state’s lax septic tank policy, funding issues and lack of public education, some communities have faced these challenges head on and are moving forward with ridding their communities of septic tanks that are causing water quality problems. Many coastal communities also deal with flooding issues and most are acutely aware of the challenges being posed by sea-level rise, especially when it comes to septic tanks. Here are some examples of proactive communities that have or are getting rid of their problem septic tanks.

City of Sanibel

In August 1991 the City of Sanibel purchased the privately owned sewer system on Sanibel with the intent to expand the system, eliminate septic systems and remove the private package plants.  In conjunction with this acquisition, bonding, assessments and voter-approved debt service was used to expand the sewer to the remaining areas of the island at a total cost of $65 million.  Since that time, two plant upgrades, and seven gravity sewer expansion projects have been completed leaving less than 100 septic systems with an estimated 10,000 housing units at build-out.

Marco Island –

The City of Marco Island found that fecal bacteria levels were 46% higher in the unsewered areas than in the waterways where central sewer service is available. Because of high density coastal development, extensive waterways, and a high water table, septic systems are not appropriate for Marco Island. Residents decided they should be eliminated before more serious problems developed.  In coastal areas, septic systems cannot adequately treat human waste.[9]  Historic monitoring of water quality surrounding Marco Island provides clear indication that pollutants have increased in the waterways.  Nitrogen and fecal matter in waterways adjacent to properties served by septic systems increased over time, and were significantly higher during the rainy season, even with a lower population.

An independent statistically valid survey reported that a majority of Marco Island citizens believe that septic tanks negatively impact the water quality of their waterways.  62% were interested in connecting to a central sewer system and 4 out of 5 believe a central sewer system was the best option to handle an increasing volume of wastewater.  In a 2004 MICA member survey, 75% of respondents expressing an opinion supported a citywide sewer system and elimination of septic tanks.[10]

In 2006 Marco Island began the sewering of the entire island and by the publication of this report, all property owners have essentially signed on. The project is being entirely paid for by the property owners and fees vary depending on the value of the lots and construction costs.

Florida Keys

Historically, development in the Florida Keys has relied on the use of cesspits and septic tanks for wastewater disposal. These systems provide little or no treatment, especially in the Keys environment because of the lack of soil, the porous limestone substrate and the high ground water tables. Over the last 20 years, aerobic treatment units (ATU, a more advanced type of onsite system) and traditional “secondary” wastewater treatment plants have also been used. Although ATUs and secondary plants provide better treatment than septic tanks and cesspits, including effluent disinfection, they are not efficient at removing nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen).

Research has determined that excessive nutrients are a primary contributor to water quality degradation in the Florida Keys, leading to depressed oxygen levels, increased algae and an imbalance in the number and diversity of native aquatic life.

In 1991Monroe County adopted its Comprehensive Plan and the land planning regulations for the Florida Keys Area of Critical State Concern. The plan’s adoption was challenged in an administrative hearing. In the 1995 Final Order on the case, the hearing officer found that sewage and stormwater discharges were degrading the nearshore waters of the Keys and that these waters exceeded their “carrying capacity” for additional nutrient pollutant loads (that is, their ability to tolerate these pollutants while still meeting water quality standards). In order to comply with the Final Order, rule 28-20.100, F.A.C., was adopted to define a “Work Program” with a schedule for corrective actions, such as the identification and elimination of cesspits and development of a comprehensive sanitary wastewater master plan. One specific goal of the Work Program and amended Comprehensive Plan was to promote wastewater facilities to meet advanced wastewater treatment (AWT) or best available technology (BAT) standards to reduce nutrient loading to nearshore waters.

The 1999 Florida Legislature bolstered the Comprehensive Plan and the DCA rule by establishing binding treatment and disposal requirements for all wastewater management facilities in Monroe County, including sewage treatment plants regulated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems (OSTDS) regulated by the Florida Department of Health (DOH). Section 6 of chapter 99-395, Laws of Florida (L.O.F.), requires all new sewage facilities, including OSTDS, permitted after June 18, 1999 to comply with BAT (Best Available Technology) standards for septic tanks and AWT (Advanced Wastewater Treatment) for facilities with design capacities equal to or greater than 100,000 gallons/day (community and central wastewater treatment systems). All existing sewage treatment facilities and OSTDS are required to comply with these standards by July 1, 2010. (Section 6 also prohibited new surface water discharges of wastewater and required elimination of existing surface water discharges by July 1, 2006.)

Sarasota County

Sarasota County initiated the Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program (PCSSRP) to improve wastewater treatment/disposal by connecting approximately 15,416 homes and businesses from septic systems to central sewer in the Phillippi Creek watershed. These parcels represent approximately 3 MGD of wastewater flows. Design and construction of sewer systems is being performed in eight phases which will continue for the next 10 years or so. Currently about 60% of the project is completed. Several phases are either in design or being bid for construction at this time.

Financing for the project is shared between property owners and the county (with state and federal grants, etc.) Each septic tank that is converted costs approximately $11,000 to connect to central sewer. The county pays about $5,000 of that and the property owners have several ways to spread the cost of conversion out over a period of years.

Phillippi Creek meanders throughout the county and has a mixture of older homes and newer ones. The Creek has a history of water quality problems which are partially being addressed by the septic to central sewer conversion.

Santa Rosa Island – (Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach and Okaloosa Island)

These three beach communities lie along Florida’s western-most coastline. When development first began on Santa Rosa Island in the 1950’s there was no central sewer. In 1964 Navarre Beach built its first sewage treatment plant. All leaseholders were required to connect to the system as soon as it became available to their property according to the leases that they signed.[11] Once central sewer was available, no new septic tanks were allowed. ‘’

Pensacola Beach followed a similar course. By 1968 there were no septic tanks on Pensacola Beach.

Okaloosa Island (east end of Santa Rosa Island) is completely sewered. It is not known when all septic tanks were removed.

Vero Beach – The City of Vero Beach may be small but its commitment to protecting the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) is huge. Realizing that the 1,500 septic tanks in use within the city’s limits (mainland and barrier island) are contributing to the ongoing water quality problems that have plagued the IRL, Vero Beach has embarked on a somewhat unique plan to eventually stop any septic tank pollution to nearby waters.

When the city first decided to take action on septic tanks they ran into one brick wall after another. Existing state laws were some of the biggest obstacles that had to be overcome. But, where there’s a will, there’s a way and by January 2015, the city will begin running new collection lines for what is called their “step system.” Rather than removing septic tanks and connecting the homes to the central sewage treatment plant, homeowners will have the opportunity to leave their septic tank in place and have a pump and pump chamber installed which will send the liquids from the septic tank to the collection system and then on to the sewage treatment plant.

The new program is not mandatory (current law doesn’t permit a mandatory system) but uses a lot of incentives to encourage participation. Many septic tank users in Vero Beach have drainfield problems on a regular basis largely due to the age of their tanks. Prior to 1983 the state only required a 6” dry zone above the drainfield which was not enough to handle the average septic tank in Florida.

These frequent drainfield failures can be eliminated for about $6,000 or for about $7,500 a homeowner can get a whole new septic tank and the city will take full responsibility for it into the future. Homeowners are already signing up for the new systems and the city expects that over the next few years most of the 1,500 septic tank owners will convert to the new service.

The initial investment cost to the city is only around $1 million dollars which the city council felt was a worthy investment to help protect the IRL. The monthly utility fee will range from $20 to $56 a month, depending on water usage.

Stuart –

The City of Stuart had about 2,200 septic tanks within the city limits that potentially contributed to a health alert for the St. Lucie River earlier this year. This emergency situation brought greater public awareness and concern about pollution from septic tanks. The city’s program to convert septic tanks to central sewer became much more attractive to city residents who want to do the right thing to protect the beautiful environment in which they live.

To date the city utility has converted 650 septic tanks to a low-pressure collection system that uses onsight grinders and a small 100 gallon tank. The conversion program is totally voluntary and the city offers incentives to residents in order to reduce the $8,000 connection fee. If a homeowner pays cash within the first year of the system becoming available then there is a $3,000 reduction in connection fees.

Cape Coral

Since Cape Coral has grown so quickly, and the use of septic tanks along and near water-fronts has likely led to water quality issues, the city wants to connect all properties within the city limits to central water and sewer as soon as possible. There are some 400 miles of canals in Cape Coral. The City has taken a loan from the state revolving fund to connect 6,000 homes in the southern half of the city. This conversion will be completed by April 2015.

The City is aware that for some people, the connection fees (on average about $10,000) will be a challenge to pay so there are about five different options for homeowners to choose from. This is roughly the choices that were available:

  • pre-pay and get a discount plus pay no septic abandonment fee or administrative costs;
  • pre-pay (at a later date) and pay no administrative fees;
  • amortize the cost over 20 years and add to annual property taxes;
  • apply for hardship program based on income;
  • apply for grants based on need.

Once the sewer connection is available, a property owner has 180 days to connect.

Orange County –

Wedged between a rock and a hard-place, Orange county is struggling to find a path to septic tank sanity. The County Commission recently approved an ordinance to “waive if it is appropriate” when fees make septic tank conversion to sewer impossible for low-income homeowners. The political will is extremely low to move the septic tank conversion process forward. Tempers flare easily and some blame the lax state laws on very slow progress. Because the state law is so “flexible” and leaves the final decision on conversion up to the local government, Orange is one of the counties that claims it would require a case by case lawsuit to force property owners to convert to central sewers.

It is estimated that it will cost $2 billion dollars to convert the 60,000 tanks that are plaguing Wekiva Springs. It is hoped that eventually the environmental pressures will bring change but at approximately $20,000 per tank for the cost of conversion, it will take leadership that is nowhere to be seen at the moment.

CHAPTER 9 – Climate Change and septic tanks

Storm drains and sewage discharge pipes are not the only infrastructure that is being threatened by sea-level rise and climate change. There are literally hundreds of thousands of septic tanks around Florida’s 1,100 mile coastline. As sea-level continues to rise and coastal areas slowly become submerged, these septic tanks could stop working completely. Septic tanks DEPEND on their drainfields in order to function. When the drainfields can no longer drain, then the system backs up into the homes or businesses at the other end of the pipes.

The flushing of salted water into the septic system can lead to sodium binding in the drainfield. The clay and fine silt particles bind together and effectively waterproof the leach field, rendering it ineffective. Flooding from rivers or the sea can all prevent a drain field from operating, and can cause flow to back up, interfering with the normal operation of the tank. High water tables can also result in groundwater flowing back into the septic tank.

Long before these homes must be abandoned due to flooding, they will require a different sewage disposal system. Are local governments or homeowners taking the cost of these changes into consideration?

Decisions determining local government legal liability to provide infrastructure are of great public importance and have far-reaching implications for local governments as our oceans continue to rise. Florida courts face two possible paths with divergent consequences: First, impose an affirmative duty on municipalities to upgrade drainage systems to accommodate SLR (Sea Level Rise). This will leave local governments vulnerable to both tort and inverse condemnation claims in the event of flooding — the only way to avoid such an outcome being massive expenditures of taxpayer money from already strained government budgets. Alternatively, courts could rule that local governments may be held liable for maintenance to drainage infrastructure only as it exists and that changes to address SLR should be considered “upgrades”; under this scenario, a decision not to upgrade would be immune from liability because the decision involves legislative discretion. In the latter case, property owners would not be able to force local governments to alter drainage regardless of cost. This would preserve the ability of local governments to continue to make legislative decisions about how and where limited funds for drainage are best spent in making changes to local drainage systems to address the impacts of SLR.[12]

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS – Six things we can do right now to reverse septic tank pollution!

Florida has experienced exponential growth over the past 50 + years, with very little forethought about how the state would look with an additional 15 million residents and some 80 million annual visitors. If there were thoughts about infrastructure needs that would come with a mushrooming population, they were sparse and spottily funded.

One of the first questions that should have been asked was where will the water for such a population surge come from and what will we do with the sewage from all these people? But answers to those very important questions have never been tackled in a serious way. Water supply and wastewater treatment and disposal are left in the hands of mostly near-sighted policy makers who seldom make the connection between the two.

Many individuals, organizations, political leaders and government agencies have raised these issues in Florida over the years and some progress has been made along the way. Yet the state is facing a future of severe water shortages and no definite plans for how to transition from being 90% dependent on groundwater to having other major sources of potable water. One third of Floridians rely on septic tanks for sewage disposal, which amounts to about 2.6 million individual tanks. In almost every part of the state, the concentrated use of septic tanks is causing serious contamination of the groundwater which is also where drinking water is being collected. This same groundwater flows to springs and nearby surface waters creating unhealthy and unsightly outcomes.

The problem with contamination in our springs, lakes, rivers, and estuaries which is caused or contributed to by septic tanks is very well documented. There is a growing outrage across the state from citizens who own contaminated drinking water wells, and who would like to use publicly owned springs, rivers and other surface waters, but can’t because the resources are too polluted.

Economic interests are being affected as well. Fish kills and red-tides adversely affect the tourism industry. Ruined habitat affects shellfish industries and fish supplies for the charter boat industry and restaurants. The economic costs of polluted waters is enormous in Florida, yet is largely ignored when weighing the cost of proposed solutions for dealing with contamination from septic tanks.

In the face of the above facts, which are widely known and understood, the state Legislature has refused to take definitive actions. In fact over the past four or five years, the Legislature has taken Florida backwards in terms of septic tank/pollution policies. After several years of struggling to get a bill passed that would begin to address springs pollution that is caused or largely contributed to by septic tanks, a good piece of legislation sponsored by Senator Constantine in 2010 was quickly overturned before it could be implemented. Since then other legislation has taken Florida even further in reverse gear by prohibiting any new rules or laws that require pollution reduction from septic tanks. Many local governments feel that this ties their hands when looking for local solutions.

Florida statutes that deal with septic tanks are wishy-washy at best. Chapter 93-151, section 381.00655, Florida Statutes does require a property owner to connect to central sewer within one year of receiving notice that the central sewer will be available. However, there is no penalty in the law for not connecting. There is also no authority granted to any entity or agency to enforce this requirement.

A local government may adopt ordinances providing for the enforcement of section 381.00655, F.S. under home rule powers. The Department of Health may also issue citations containing an order to correct or an order to pay a fine, or both, for violations of sections 381.00655 – 381.0067 or the rules adopted by the department. However, many local governments don’t use their local powers to require homeowners to connect to central sewers because enforcement requires a case-by-case lawsuit when means lengthy and costly litigation by the county. Additionally, forcing homeowners to pay connection fees and monthly service fees is not an appealing chore for most locally elected politicians.

There are a number of cities and counties in Florida that have the political will, leadership and determination to convert areas of their jurisdiction over from septic tanks to central sewer and those conversions are underway or in many cases completed. They receive very little help or encouragement from Tallahassee and in some cases their intentions are stymied by the above-mentioned laws and Tallahassee bureaucracy.


  1. The state should publicly acknowledge that water quality and water quantity are connected and affect each other.
  2. Chapter 381.0065, F.S., needs to be amended to require a homeowner to connect to central sewer when it becomes available.
  3. There should be a statewide moratorium on new septic tank permits/installations where there are nitrogen levels that are above background or natural conditions, whichever is less, in the groundwater or any surface water within ½ mile of the septic tank.
  4. The 2010 Legislation requiring septic tank inspections, etc. should be reenacted and implemented.
  5. The 2008 unfinished septic tank study should be funded and completed immediately.
  6. The Legislature should dedicate significant funds every year until all problem septic tanks are addressed. Funding should be provided for local governments/health departments to create a fund for low-income homeowners to either convert septic tanks to central sewer or replace/update dysfunctional septic tank systems where appropriate.


  1. Lipp, E.K, Farrah, S.A. and Rose, J.B. (2001) in a paper titled “Assessment and Impact of Microbial Fecal Pollution and Human Enteric Pathogens in a Coastal community” concluded that surface water bodies at risk are those with high concentrations of septic tanks. They state:

“Tracer studies demonstrate rapid movement of viruses from septic tanks into nearby coastal waters.”

“Viruses may migrate under saturated conditions beyond current setback distance required between the drain field and wet weather water table.”

“Under current regulations Florida soils may not be able to filter viral pathogens adequately.”

“Infectious enteroviruses were detected throughout the study area, indicating a widespread contamination problem and a potential public health risk.”

2.Wakulla Spring Restoration Plan – 2014 http://floridaspringsinstitute.org/Resources/Documents/2014.08%20V3%20Wakulla%20Restoration%20Plan.pdf


[1] Cumulative totals are based on 1970 census figures plus number of systems installed since 1970.

These figures do not account for systems taken out of service.

[2] The US EPA granted Florida the only SDWA exemption in the nation in 2005 simply to accommodate the mixing of sewage effluent with drinking water that is caused by Florida’s deep-well injection systems in south Florida.

[3] http://www.dep.state.fl.us/springs/reports/files/phaseII_report.pdf

[4] Politi-Fact Florida

[5] Siemen, Patricia OP and Williams, Robert A., Center for Earth Jurisprudence, ­Comments on Draft BMAP for Wekiva River, Rock Springs Run, and Little Wekiva Canal, May 7, 2013.

[6] Source: http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2013/aug/11/move-over-fertilizer-septic-tank-drainage-also/

[7] Eller, K.T. and Katz, Brian, B.G., Nitrogen Source Inventory and Loading Estimates for the Wakulla Spring Contributing Area, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, July 2014, pp. 15 – 17.

[8] Wakulla Springs Restoration Plan, The Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, August 2014. http://floridaspringsinstitute.org/Resources/Documents/2014.08%20V3%20Wakulla%20Restoration%20Plan.pdf

[9] They acknowledged that septic tanks cannot adequately remove viruses, fecal matter, pharmaceuticals, and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphate, all of which present health risks and degradation of island waterways.  Studies show by-products of human waste can rapidly leech into yards, sidewalks, and waterways.  In Florida, many areas have experienced waterway contamination from failed septic tanks.

[10] City of Marco Island website: http://www.cityofmarcoisland.com/index.aspx?page=254

[11] Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach property owners do not have fee-simple title to their properties. They have 99-year leases that are renewable in perpetuity.

[12] http://www.floridabar.org/DIVCOM/JN/JNJournal01.nsf/8c9f13012b96736985256aa900624829/d1cd8a7e6519800885257c1200482c39!OpenDocument

  1. Attorney General Bob Butterworth’s Opinion on Mandatory Sewage Connection

[i] Number: AGO 2000-71
Date: December 14, 2000
Subject: Sewers–mandatory connection sewerage system

Mr. Michael S. Mullin
Nassau County Attorney
Post Office Box 1010
Fernandina Beach, Florida 32035-1010

RE: COUNTIES–SEWER SYSTEMS–residential owners whose property is served by onsite septic system required to connect with an investor-owned sewerage system after written notification of system’s availability. s. 381.00655, Fla. Stat.

Dear Mr. Mullin:

On behalf of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners, you ask substantially the following question:

Does section 381.00655, Florida Statutes, mandate that residential property owners whose property is currently served by an onsite septic system connect to an investor-owned sewerage system, and may the costs of such sewerage line be assessed to the property owners that do not hook up to the system?

In sum:

The Legislature, through the enactment of section 381.00655, Florida Statutes, has required residential owners whose property is served by an onsite septic system to connect with an investor-owned sewerage system after written notification by the owner of the investor-owned sewerage system that the system is available for connection. The statute, however, permits the investor-owned sewerage system to waive the connection with the consent of the Department of Health.

The Legislature has enacted section 381.00655, Florida Statutes, which requires property owners who currently have onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems to connect to available central sewerage systems. An onsite sewage treatment system includes such things as septic systems.[1] Pursuant to the statute:

“The owner of a properly functioning onsite sewage treatment and disposal system . . . must connect the system or the building’s plumbing to an available publicly owned or investor-owned sewerage system within 365 days after written notification by the owner of the publicly owned or investor-owned sewerage system that the system is available for connection. The publicly owned or investor-owned sewerage system must notify the owner of the onsite sewage treatment and disposal system of the availability of the central sewerage system. No less than 1 year prior to the date the sewerage system will become available, the publicly owned or investor-owned sewerage system shall notify the affected owner of the onsite sewage treatment and disposal system of the anticipated availability of the sewerage system and shall also notify the owner that the owner will be required to connect to the sewerage system within 1 year of the actual availability. . . .”[2] (e.s.)

If an onsite sewage treatment and disposal system must be repaired in order to function or to comply with the requirements of sections 381.0065-381.0067, Florida Statutes, or rules adopted thereunder, the owner of such system must connect to an available publicly owned or investor-owned sewerage system within 90 days after written notification from the department.[3] In hardship cases, upon request of the owner the department may approve one extension of not more than 90 days for sewerage connection.

The statute recognizes that there may be instances where the requirement of mandatory sewer hookup may be waived. Section 381.00655(2)(b), Florida Statutes, provides:

“A publicly owned or investor-owned sewerage system may, with the approval of the [Department of Health], waive the requirement of mandatory onsite sewage disposal connection if it determines that such connection is not required in the public interest due to public health considerations.”

It is, however, the publicly owned or investor-owned system that determines, with the approval of the Department of Health, whether the mandatory hookup provisions of section 381.00655, Florida Statutes, may be waived. The statute makes no provision for the property owner to decline to connect to the system.

Section 381.00655(1)(a), Florida Statutes, grants the property owner the option of prepaying the amortized value of required connection charges in equal monthly installments over a period not to exceed 2 years from the date of the initial notification of anticipated availability. In addition, the local governing body of the jurisdiction in which the owner of the onsite sewage treatment and disposal system resides may provide that any connection fee charged under this section by an investor-owned sewerage system may be paid without interest in monthly installments, over a period of time not to exceed 5 years from the date the sewerage system becomes available, if it determines that the owner has demonstrated a financial hardship.[4]

Although the statute requires sewer hookup and makes provision for payment of hookup fees, there are no statutorily prescribed penalties for failure to connect to the system within the designated time period. A companion bill in the House of Representatives to Committee Substitute for Senate Bill 158 provided:

“If the owner of an onsite sewage treatment and disposal system has not connected to an available publicly owned or investor-owned sewerage system within the time required by this subsection, the publicly owned or investor-owned sewerage system may charge the owner any connection fees, customer charges, or minimum billing charges as if the owner had connected to the available sewerage system on the last day of the notification period. Such charges may be collected or enforced as permitted by applicable tariffs or rules and regulations of the sewerage system or as otherwise permitted by law.”[5]

No such provisions are contained in the Senate Bill that passed as Chapter 93-151, Laws of Florida, creating section 381.00655, Florida Statutes. Nor does section 381.00655, Florida Statutes, specifically grant enforcement authority to any agency or entity.

This office, however, has stated that a county or a municipality may take local legislative action providing for the enforcement of section 381.00655, Florida Statutes, under home rule powers.[6] The statute itself clearly recognizes the authority of counties and municipalities to “enforce other laws for the protection of the public health and safety.”[7] Moreover, section 381.0065(5)(b)1., Florida Statutes, provides that the Department of Health may issue citations containing an order of correction or an order to pay a fine, or both, for violations of sections 381.0065-381.0067 or the rules adopted by the department, when a violation of these sections or rules is enforceable by an administrative or civil remedy, or when a violation of these sections or rules is a misdemeanor of the second degree.[8] A citation issued under sections 381.0065-381.0067, Part I of Chapter 386, or Part III of Chapter 489, Florida Statutes, constitutes a notice of proposed agency action.

Accordingly, I am of the view that the Legislature, through the enactment of section 381.00655, Florida Statutes, requires residential owners whose property is served by an onsite septic system to connect with an investor-owned sewerage system after written notification by the owner of the investor-owned sewerage system that the system is available for connection, unless the investor-owned sewerage system waives the connection with the consent of the Department of Health.


Robert A. Butterworth
Attorney General



[1] See s. 381.0065(2)(j), Fla. Stat., as amended by s. 10, Ch. 2000-242, Laws of Florida, defining an “Onsite sewage treatment and disposal system” as used in ss. 381.0065-381.0067, Fla. Stat., to mean

“a system that contains a standard subsurface, filled, or mound drainfield system; an aerobic treatment unit; a graywater system tank; a laundry wastewater system tank; a septic tank; a grease interceptor; a pump tank; a solids or effluent pump; a waterless, incinerating, or organic waste-composting toilet; or a sanitary pit privy that is installed or proposed to be installed beyond the building sewer on land of the owner or on other land to which the owner has the legal right to install a system. The term includes any item placed within, or intended to be used as a part of or in conjunction with, the system. This term does not include package sewage treatment facilities and other treatment works regulated under chapter 403.” (e.s.)

[2] Section 381.00655(1)(a), Fla. Stat.

[3] Section 381.00655(1)(b), Fla. Stat.

[4] Section 381.00655(2)(a), Fla. Stat. The statute requires the local governing body to establish criteria for making the determination that the owner has demonstrated a financial hardship, taking into account the owner’s net worth, income, and financial needs.

[5] Section 2, HB 2133, 1993 legislative session.

[6] See Op. Att’y Gen Fla. 96-09 (1996), and Inf. Op. to Alan C. Jensen, dated August 27, 1999.

[7] Section 381.00655(1)(a), Fla. Stat.

[8] Cf. Rule 64E-6.022(1)(p), Fla.Admin.C., establishing disciplinary guidelines for the installation, modification, or repair of an onsite sewage treatment and disposal system in violation of the standards of s. 381.0065 or s. 381.00655, Fla. Stat., or chapter 64E-6, Fla.Admin.C.: First violation, $500 per specific standard violated; repeat violation, 90 day suspension or revocation.










About the Author

Linda Young has been the executive director of the Clean Water Network of Florida since 1994. From 1989 to 1997, she founded and published a monthly statewide environmental newspaper. Over the past twenty three years, she has co-founded some of the most long-lasting and effective environmental organizations in the Southeast, including the Gulf Restoration Network, Gulf Coast Environmental Defense and C.A.T.E. She holds a B.A. in Communications from Southern Oregon University and a M.A. in Political Science/Campaign Management from the University of West Florida.

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