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Vero Beach wants to phase out septic tanks on island

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of October 21, 2021)

One of the first issues on tap for the new Vero Beach City Council after the November election will be whether to force city residents on the barrier island to move off of reliance on their septic tanks and hook up to Vero’s sewer system.

Councilman Dick Winger brought the matter up for discussion at a recent council meeting, saying that sewer service is now widely available on the island and, while Vero can’t do much about septic tanks located outside the city limits, the council can set a date certain when all city homes still on septic tanks must be converted to a Septic Tank Effluent Pump (STEP) system.

“We finished laying pipe four years ago, we laid 93,000 feet of pipe in two years,” Vero’s Water-Sewer Utility Director Rob Bolton said.

No policy has been set yet, but council members suggested that 2029 or 2030 could be a fair deadline giving homeowners time to plan. It would also give the city staff a chance to seek grant funding to offset the cost of converting hundreds of septic users to sewer customers.

Bolton said the city started out six years ago with 1,500 septic tanks, including 900 on the barrier island, half of which have hooked up to sewer service via a STEP system. That leaves roughly 450 STEP-eligible septic tanks remaining on the barrier island. Noting that people tend to wait until the last minute to comply, Bolton suggested the deadline might be different for each neighborhood – maybe 2027 for Bethel Creek, 2028 for Live Oak and 2029 for Riomar and Central Beach.

“I wish that back six years ago we would have had the courage to say that by 2030 or something we’d do away with the drainfields,” Winger said.

Winger also sees home sales as an opportunity to get rid of septics. “On the barrier island if a house is sold, at that point in time it needs to be converted to a STEP system,” Winger said, clarifying that he means only homes within the city limits.

Mayor Robbie Brackett said a septic tank inspection is typically done when the house is sold, that the buyer does the inspection and the seller gets a copy if repairs are needed.  Then the parties negotiate based on that. But right now, no one is required to furnish a copy of the inspection to the city.

“There are issues with implementation and grants. We need to have a plan,” Brackett said.

Council candidate Tracey Zudans rose to the public podium during the discussion and asked if there is any data showing that STEP conversion is worth the cost to homeowners.

“If we’ve done half the barrier island, have we checked the lagoon’s health since then to see if lagoon health improved?” Zudans said.

Bolton explained that the city has no way to determine the success of the STEP program other than knowing it diverts effluent from septic drainfields.

“I would have loved to have a before and after, but there’s no monitoring of the lagoon,” Bolton said. “No one is doing tests on nutrients or anything else in the lagoon water.”

It’s the city’s position that STEP systems – along with a fertilizer ordinance plus costly stormwater management projects and street sweeping – work together to positively impact the lagoon. But the fertilizer ordinance is not being enforced, and there’s no hard data to prove that water quality is improving as a direct result of these efforts.

The STEP system does not require the excavation and removal of the septic tank. While leaving the septic tank in place to break down solids, it pumps the nutrient-rich liquid waste called effluent off into a pipe leading to the city’s sanitary sewer lines, reducing the chance that the liquid waste would end up running off into the Indian River Lagoon.

When Vero began installing STEP systems on the barrier island six years ago, the city offered incentives to early adopters. The council would like to see some type of help for people who would be forced to connect.

The typical cost is $6,000 to $9,000 but the cost can vary widely depending upon the location and condition of the septic system. The city does not do the installation, so residents must apply to the city for conversion and then find a private septic contractor to do the work.

Vero would not be able to impose STEP system hookup requirements on Indian River Shores customers or on unincorporated South Beach customers in Vero’s water-sewer service territory as that type of regulation would need to come from the Shores Town Council and the Indian River Board of County Commissioners, respectively.

Bolton said he had spoken to former Shores town manage Joe Griffin about offering STEP conversions to Shores residents, but that “all communication stopped” when the Shores filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Vero regarding the water-sewer utility.

A council workshop on how to deal with septic tanks in the city is tentatively scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Nov. 29 in council chambers.