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Vero’s innovative sewer system will help lagoon


While county commissioners continue to talk big about their love for the Indian River Lagoon and their determination to save it, Vero Beach utility director Rob Bolton and his staff at the city’s water and sewer department are actually doing something about it.

With little fanfare, Vero Beach since spring has been installing an innovative sewer system on the barrier island that eventually will replace hundreds of worn out septic tanks, capturing 40,000 pounds of lagoon-killing nutrients each year, along with other poisonous chemicals that now flow from island septic tanks into the lagoon.

The nutrients, mainly nitrogen, feed algae blooms that smother sea life, while coliform bacteria and household chemicals further pollute the water, making it dangerous for humans and spreading disease among bottlenose dolphins and other marine animals.

It was an uphill battle to get approval for the STEP hybrid sewer system, which is already serving as a model for other cities with septic pollution problems.   (STEP is short for Septic Tank Effluent Pump system.)

The system leaves existing septic systems in place as a backup while capturing household effluent before it goes into the groundwater and pumping it into the city’s primary sewer system for treatment via a series of small diameter pipes that can be installed without tearing up streets or trenching yards.

STEP’s biggest selling point is that it’s less than half as expensive for homeowners to hook up as  a standard sewer connection.

About 900 of the 1,500 homes in the City of Vero Beach portion of the island are still on septic, Bolton said. Eighty percent of the systems are outdated, built prior to 1983 when state regulations required only a six-inch separation between groundwater and the bottom of septic drain fields, and allowed drain fields within 25 feet of the lagoon.

Before it could move ahead on the STEP system, Vero had to clarify the legality of the STEP system in Florida, successfully petitioning the governor’s office to sort out conflicting regulations at the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health, finally achieving something the city has been trying to do since the 1970s.

“We started putting the lines in in April and just sent off the permit application for the final phase of the project,” said Bolton, who beginning in 2013 researched and planned the STEP system that is being installed.

Some people have already hooked up to the new system and the city will soon publicize an incentive program worth as much as $3,400 per household to encourage others with worn-out septic tanks to participate.

“It is costing people about $7,000 to put the new system in [after city rebates],” says George McCullers of Reliable Septic, the company that has installed most of the STEP systems. “Dollar for dollar, this is the best system out there, and that is coming from the guy who puts them in the ground.”

McCullers says it takes about two days to do the job, including cleanup that leaves lawns and landscaping undisturbed.

Bolton estimates it would have cost homeowners approximately $16,000 to get off of septic if the city had built standard sewer lines.

Properly functioning up-to-date septic systems percolate wastewater through a thick layer of dirt that filters out bacteria, nitrogen, phosphorous and other chemicals, but the pre-1983 systems are leaking pollution directly into the groundwater, especially in heavy rains when soil is saturated.

Bolton estimates the island sewer project will cost about $1 million. St. Johns Water Management District, which has strongly supported the effort, is paying more than half the cost with two grants totaling $545,000.

“Reducing nutrient inputs from all sources is critical to the recovery and future health of the Indian River Lagoon,” says William Tredik, leader of the District’s Indian River Lagoon Protection Initiative.

As soon as he wraps up work on the island, Bolton plans to tackle mainland neighborhoods where another 600 city homes are on septic systems, beginning with streets near the Vero Beach Country Club that are adjacent to the main relief canal, which drains directly into the lagoon.

Bolton began researching alternative sewer systems after Harbor Branch scientist Brian Lapointe reported that much of the algae-feeding nitrogen in the lagoon was coming from human sewage.

“We found a very strong chemical signal of sewage pollution along the length of lagoon, with the highest levels in Indian River County,” Lapointe said in April 2013. “At the end of the rainy season the IRC lagoon had an average reading ... [equivalent to] what you would get if you tested at the mouth of a sewage treatment outfall. The measurements are off the charts.”

When Bolton ran into the conflicting state regulations – FDEP rules would have allowed STEP systems, but Health Department rules prohibited them – Vero Beach Mayor Dick Winger wrote the governor’s office asking for a ruling.

When the affirmative answer came, it clarified state law relating to sewer systems not just for Vero but for many coastal cities in Florida facing the same problem of septic pollution.

In March, the city council passed an ordinance creating the STEP system program and defining city and homeowner responsibilities. In brief, any new homes built in the city are required to hook up to the city sewer system, directly or via STEP. Any homeowner whose septic system fails will also be required to connect. Beyond that, participation is voluntary.

McCullers says some people are hooking up out of environmental concern, others because they know their septic systems are old and will need to be replaced before long. The city incentives are another motivating factor.

Bolton says he hopes for a 10 percent signup rate in the first year of the new program, which would stop pollution from 90 island septic systems.

“A whole lot of people came together to make this happen,” he says. “I probably could have come up with excuses for inaction, but I had a coalition of citizens who pushed me along.”

He says island residents Judy Orcutt and Debby Ecker “showed up at my door every day!” Both women are members of Pelican Island Audubon Society, which is widely regarded as the county’s most effective environmental advocacy organization.

Bolton says a government official from Cape Cod who read about what Vero is doing will be visiting to study the system for use in his community, where a state mandate now requires houses to switch from septic to sewer.

“Their estimated per-household cost up there is $60,000, so they are looking for alternatives,” says Vero’s water and sewer chief.