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Concerns increase over septic systems and lagoon

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of May 16, 2013)

Vero Beach City Council members want staff to come up with changes to ordinances which could deny new homes septic system permits if a sewer line is available to service their properties.

The discussion by City Council members last week suggests that most are concerned that leaking septic systems may be causing many of the problems with the lagoon’s failing health.

Still, it is doubtful that any guidelines will impact many homeowners because the area most septic systems are concentrated, the northwestern part of Central Beach, doesn’t have sewer lines where people could hook up.

Despite that limited impact, increased attention is being given to septic systems and what might be done about them.

The city and county health departments – which issue permits – are working together to produce a more detailed mapping of the city’s 1,700 septic systems.

Of those septic systems, about 900 are on the barrier island.

Officials then want to match up their current maps with another map being created by scientists who are studying nitrogen levels in the Indian River Lagoon to determine which septic systems are contributing most to lagoon pollution.

The city and county are currently operating under 1983 state guidelines for septic tanks and permits that outline how far above sea level and how far away from the water the tanks and lines can be.

The city has grandfathered in a large number of properties on the island that were platted before 1972, allowing them to meet only 1972 guidelines which were less stringent.

The tentative regulations being suggested by the city would make the 1983 guidelines the new standard for everyone.

Homeowners who cannot meet the 1983 regulations, such as the requirement to have the systems no closer than 75 feet from the water and at a higher level above the water table, would have to appeal to the city’s planning and zoning boards.

Some people worry that fear mongering may be behind the idea to change the septic guidelines.

Island resident Joseph Guffanti told City Council that if it is a proven septic tanks are causing the problems in the lagoon, he is all for the stricter guidelines, but he wanted to be sure that was the case before buying into the idea.

Prior to last week's meeting, the city hasn’t had any earnest discussions about septic systems since 2007. 

At the time, there was a massive outcry from islanders opposed to a plan that would have required the government and homeowners to split the cost of extending the municipal sewer system to additional parts of the barrier island.

As it stands now, there is no seed or grant money available to reintroduce the idea. 

Rob Bolton, the city’s director of water and sewer department, said the city could consider low-interest loans if it wanted to expand its sewerage systems.

Council members appeared ready to move ahead to address the septic system and lagoon pollution.

“I contend to this day that septic tanks are a point of pollution,” said Mayor Craig Fletcher.  “It is something that we need to address. It is just absurd to have septic (tanks) draining so close to the water system like that.”

New research by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute scientists indicate that the septic tanks on the island are filling the lagoon with nitrogen which feeds algae blooms and kills marine life. 

Many now believe that sewage is an even bigger problem to the lagoon than fertilizer runoff.

The proposed changes to Vero’s septic ordinances would be citywide and not just targeted at the barrier island. 

Bolton said he is hopeful that time, education on the perils facing the lagoon and the end of the recession may lead many to reverse their stances on sewer hookups.

Islander Jim Moran, a Central Beach resident, thinks the time has come for the city to address the lack of sewer systems in Central Beach.

In an e-mail to Councilman Jay Kramer and to Bolton, Moran explained what he witnessed when he tore down a home and had the septic system moved to another area of the property 15 years ago.

“It became apparent to me that my septic system and the estuary were but one,” Moran wrote in an e-mail.  He said that in his case, his drain field was at least 100 feet from the shoreline. 

“I truly question if the new (1983) existing septic elevations provide an adequate barrier between the water table and the drain field and would suggest in 2013 (that) septic tanks close to a body of water are inappropriate.”