Ag­ing sewage sys­tems pose threat to health — and tourism, real es­tate

Orlando Sentinel - - OPINION - By Bran­don D. Shuler

Many Florida util­i­ties rely on ag­ing sewage sys­tems that have not been up­graded in some cases since the 1950s. Florida’s frag­ile ecosys­tems and economies should not be threat­ened by the in­evitable spills and break­downs that oc­cur in these sys­tems. Florida should to take a com­pre­hen­sive and a for­ward-look­ing ap­proach to up­grad­ing Florida’s do­mes­tic waste­water in­fra­struc­tures.

Few of Florida’s sys­tems have the ca­pac­ity to han­dle ex­ist­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties much less ad­dress Florida’s rapid pop­u­la­tion growth and devel­op­ment. Ob­vi­ously, dump­ing raw sewage into vul­ner­a­ble ecosys­tems such as the In­dian River La­goon or Tampa Bay is not the an­swer, nor is pass­ing off nu­tri­ent-laden, par­tially treated sewage as ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter. Per­haps must un­ac­cept­able is the way Mi­ami/Dade and Broward coun­ties dump par­tially treated sewage off­shore via dis­charge pipes onto dy­ing coral reefs. In­stead, waste­water should be viewed as a re­source that, with rea­son­able in­vest­ments, can be cleansed suf­fi­ciently and reused re­spon­si­bly. We have the tech­nolo­gies and the means to im­ple­ment them.

In or­der to pro­tect and im­prove Florida wa­ters, and to en­sure ad­e­quate wa­ter sup­plies in a rapidly grow­ing state, we must look beyond the costs to in­di­vid­ual mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and their util­i­ties and con­sider the threats that Florida’s ag­ing sewage sys­tems now pose to the in­tegrity of our touris­mand real es­tate-based economies. Florida’s wa­ter woes have made na­tional head­lines. It’s go­ing to take years to clean up our beaches, wa­ters and fish­eries, as well as our rep­u­ta­tion as a great place to live and visit. Florid­i­ans are well aware of the causes of these crises, and are right­fully out­raged.

Cit­i­zens groups are push­ing for sewage fixes around the state, be­cause nu­tri­ent pol­lu­tion from sep­tic tanks and stormwa­ter runoff are prob­lems. That’s some­thing our

HIS­TOR­I­CAL PER­SPEC­TIVE team re­al­ized as we re­searched our award­win­ning doc­u­men­tary, St Peters­burg’s sewage treat­ment sys­tem fail­ures, which cause mil­lions of gal­lons of raw sewage spills an­nu­ally, are prob­lems shared by many Florida waste­water agen­cies. Our city failed to ad­dress — even cov­ered up — the weak­nesses of our sewage in­fras­truc­ture and its reg­u­lar enor­mous spills. I sin­cerely hope that elected of­fi­cials in other Florida cities and coun­ties will spare their cit­i­zens the pitched bat­tles we’ve en­dured against the of­fi­cials we mis­tak­enly trusted with our health, nat­u­ral re­sources and econ­omy. As Florid­i­ans, we need to ad­mit our prob­lems and work to­gether to­ward the ways and means to rem­edy them.

Sure, mod­ern­iz­ing sewage treat­ment is ex­pen­sive, but ask St. Pete if hid­ing from the is­sue ac­tu­ally saves money. On Oct. 4, af­ter a pro­tracted bat­tle against its own res­i­dents to evade its sewage treat­ment re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, the city of St. Peters­burg fi­nally sur­ren­dered to court-or­dered state and fed­eral over­sight.

The set­tle­ment places the city’s pub­lic works un­der the watch of the Florida Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion, and fed­eral Judge An­thony E. Por­celli of the 11th Cir­cuit Mid­dle Dis­trict Tampa. Mean­while, even as St Pete en­ters this agree­ment, area beaches are still clos­ing due to high hu­man fe­cal bac­te­ria counts. Ac­cord­ing to many sci­en­tists, nu­tri­ents from sewage pol­lu­tion can fuel the harm­ful al­gal blooms presently dam­ag­ing both coasts. Un­der court su­per­vi­sion, the city must make up­grades on ex­ist­ing in­fras­truc­ture, in­crease treat­ment ca­pac­ity, and meet dead­lines on the pre­scribed time­line — hope­fully be­fore St. Pete loses its stature as a world-class place to live and visit.

The city jeop­ar­dized our lo­cal tourism­based econ­omy by wast­ing three years spend­ing mil­lions of dollars lit­i­gat­ing against a five-year pro­ject that will amount to over $300 mil­lion in in­fras­truc­ture fixes. The city en­dan­gered our econ­omy know­ing full well that there are affordable ways to fi­nance new do­mes­tic waste­water in­fra­struc­tures, in­clud­ing ad­vanced treat­ment op­tions that al­low mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to clean and re­cy­cle the world’s most pre­cious sub­stance: wa­ter. Wisely, Ar­ti­cle 7 of Florida’s Con­sti­tu­tion ex­plic­itly au­tho­rizes lo­cal gov­ern­ments and the state to is­sue bonds for cap­i­tal im­prove­ments, in­clud­ing waste­water man­age­ment.

It is time for state and lo­cal elected of­fi­cials to de­velop com­pre­hen­sive waste­water treat­ment strate­gies that im­ple­ment the high­est stan­dards of treat­ment pos­si­ble. If you don’t, the peo­ple will hold you ac­count­able, as we did in St. Pete.

JA­COB LANGSTON/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

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