Sea Level Rise Causing Septic Tanks to Fail, Potentially Contaminating South Florida’s Biscayne Aquifer

Sea Level Rise Causing Septic Tanks to Fail, Potentially Contaminating South Florida’s Biscayne Aquifer

  • Ross Milroy Group
  • 10/9/21


As we saw newscasters bracing themselves in 150 mph hurricane winds this week, trouble brewing underground in septic tanks might appear to be the least concern. While our neighbors to the Northwest along Florida’s panhandle are dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, South Floridians are facing a dangerous, and potentially deadly, threat as well. This past week, we saw the vast majority of our beaches, both on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, closed and empty because of a red tide outbreak. This toxic bacteria causes breathing problems in humans, and is responsible for the death of hundreds of fish, turtles, manatees, and other marine life found in our coastal waters. Scientists are pointing a finger at the nearly indisputable source: pollution.

Septic Tank Failures Fueling Red Tide Fire

While the severity of this year’s red tide is being blamed on excessive rains and Hurricane Irma washing nutrient pollution into the coastal waters, Miami is experiencing other year-round pollution issues. Our seashores, as well as the underlying Biscayne Aquifer, is steadily being tainted by leaking and malfunctioning septic tanks. While this alone may not start harmful algae blooms, the leaking septic tanks act as fuel to keep the red tide growing, in essence, pouring gasoline on the fire.

Septic tanks aren’t just affecting Miami’s wildlife and beach plans. As we previously reported, there’s a real and active threat to our drinking water, as toxic waste from the tanks continue to seep into the aquifer. Compounding the issue of antiquated septic tanks is the rising sea level and floods, which saturates the soil under the tanks, hindering the natural filtration process.

Why Septic Tanks?

Septic tanks are present at homes and businesses primarily in areas where there is not an active sewer system. Septic systems are underground wastewater treatment holding tanks, usually made from concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. These systems are used to treat wastewater from household plumbing produced by bathrooms, kitchen drains, and laundry. Typically, these tanks separate floatable matter (e.g. solids, oils and grease) from liquids through a series of pipes that allow contaminated fluids to eventually trickle through organic matter to remove or neutralize pollutants. Problems arise when the septic system is not working properly, is leaking, or is unable to drain because of a rise in groundwater levels caused by sea-level rise and flooding. The result is disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other contaminants polluting the soil and potentially entering the aquifer.

One-third of all Florida homes, about 1.6 million households, use septic tanks; about 100,000 are in Miami-Dade. The areas in Miami closest to the ocean are the most susceptible to these issues because there is no longer enough soil under the septic tanks to work properly. Miami’s Upper East Side and Surfside neighborhoods, which do not have sewer systems, have been identified as the most in need of septic overhauls. Also troubling, the vast majority of homes in Hialeah are dependent on septic tanks. Given that Hialeah has one of the highest poverty rates in Miami Dade County, they are less likely to pay the thousands of dollars needed to repair faulty tanks. Also relying on residential septic systems are the residents of Miami Shores, as well as much of Kendall and Pinecrest.

Potential Help From Florida D.E.P.

In an effort to regain some control over this situation, on October 8th, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced a Septic Upgrade Incentive Program. The DEP is hoping this will encourage homeowners to strengthen their septic systems in an attempt to improve water quality and ultimately protect Florida’s water supply. The program can offset the cost of a full upgrade by providing installers and plumbers with up to $10,000 for retrofitting septic tanks with features that reduce the nitrogen pollution. Homeowners benefit from the reduction in upgrading septic system costs, as well as the civic duty and responsibility for preserving their local environment and water supply.

Miami is still out of luck though – the pilot program is only available in some northwest Florida counties, including: Citrus, Hernando, Leon, Marion, Orange, Pasco, Seminole, Volusia, and Wakulla. Many of these “priority focus areas” are those adjacent to natural springs.

As the city of Miami deals with flooding during the peak of King Tide season, we need to remember that there is more than just flood damage at stake. Though more systems have been installed to use tidal dams, pipes and valves to stem the rising water, if septic waste continues to leak and contaminate our water and wildlife, we could find ourselves in a dire situation. When buying a new home, especially in Miami-Dade, it’s important to know if the home has a septic system and the condition it’s in. Also, keep in mind that septic tanks should be pumped out every few years (depending on usage and size of the tank) and this can cost up to $400 each time

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