The Dangers Associated with Septic Systems:
Why Estero Village Council Has Embarked on the Conversion of “Septic to Sewer”
Prepared by The ECCL’s team of Allan Bowditch, James Root, and Mark Novitski.
There are currently over 700 septic systems in the Estero area. While some of these were installed after 1980, when the State changed the drainage regulations, which addressed the potential of ground and surface water pollution from septic systems, most of Estero’s septic systems have been in place well before that time. Unfortunately, these older septic systems are failing. The houses with septic sewers are mainly located north of the Estero River, built in many cases before the building boom from 2000 to 2010. Many are in the water table, and seepage from the septic systems runs off into the Estero River.
In addition, many building lots are still available that are not on a municipal sanitary sewer system. These will require a hook-up to the municipal system before any construction is commenced.
Newer communities, which have given rise to Estero’s growth, were required to install a modern piped sewer and main structure. The cost of this was included in the purchase price of each home, apartment, or condominium.
Septic systems in Estero
Why is there a concern about septic systems?
“Septic systems are an under-recognized cause of disease outbreaks,” said Jonathan Yoder, who leads the domestic water, sanitation, and hygiene epidemiology team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention1. “Septic systems, faulty units, and those that pass inspection nurture an undesirable group of bacteria, parasites, viruses, nutrients, and other contaminants in groundwater, streams, and soil. They represent a threat to human health in a country where public and regulatory attention is directed toward centralized wastewater treatment facilities.”
Not all systems are a problem, but an unknown number put human health and well-being at risk. Contaminants are spread in different manners, depending on soil and geology. Soil microbes generally do a good job removing bacteria from the waste, but the soil’s treatment capacity diminishes as more septic units crowd a parcel of land. Basic septic systems are not designed to remove other pollutants.
How it Works
Nitrogen, converted in the soil to nitrate, passes through largely untouched and can form contamination plumes in groundwater, leading to algae blooms. Nitrate can accumulate in specific subsoil areas, depending on the geology and soil characteristics. Pharmaceutical compounds are also not broken down in septic tanks and can affect fish and other aquatic species.
In 2020/21, FGCU’s Water School conducted a study that involved taking water samples from the Estero River. The analysis identified traces of enterococcus, a bacterium that lives in the intestines of humans and animals, together with E. coli. These are known as fecal indicator bacteria and are used to prove the presence of human fecal matter. FGCU Professor Donald Duke said, “although animal waste can also contribute, many indicators show that human waste is a part of the pollutants.” The 13-month-long study selected seven locations along the Estero River. The findings showed the concentration of fecal indicator bacteria was “very high” in several areas on almost all the samples taken.
Apart from the problem with faulty septic systems, contamination is frequently caused when the septic tank level is below that of the high groundwater table. This scenario causes the system’s contents to mix with the groundwater finding its way into nearby lakes and rivers like the Estero river and out into the Estero Bay! It could also find its way into underground aquifers.
Families that use a private well for drinking water are most vulnerable to diseases spread by septic systems. Private well owners are generally not required to report water use, treat the water, or have it tested for contaminants. The lack of reporting requirements puts these families at greater risk than those using municipal water, tested dozens of times daily. Because of the lack of rules and regulations in the State, regarding septic systems, there is little that can be done to check on them or insist on remedial action for those causing contamination! In Estero, most homes with septic systems tend to be associated with older properties.
What action is being undertaken by Estero Village Council?
The Village Council has prioritized the plan to convert most of the homes with septic systems to municipal sewage systems. It is possible that those homes on high ground, not near the Estero River, will not be linked to the municipal system for logistical and cost reasons because they would be unlikely to contaminate the river.
The overall process will be divided into separate phases.
Phase 1: The Septic Package Plant Systems
(where one tank serves several homes using a centralized system)
The first phase, which involves several steps, will include those homes with a centralized septic system identified as a “package plant.” These are homes where several homes are linked to a large single septic tank. The homes in Estero that have this system will be the first to be converted to the municipal system.
As seen in the accompanying diagram, the design stage began in October 2021 and will be followed by permitting and bidding. The companies selected to conduct the phase 1 project will be made shortly, and construction and hook-up to the municipal sewage system should be concluded by July 2023. The homes involved are in Estero Bay Village, Cypress Bend RV Resort, and Sunny Grove.
The Village Council appreciates the need to minimize the cost involved for each household. However, it is not until the decision to select the vendors to conduct the work is made and accurate costs are determined that applications for grants to help minimize the project’s cost can be made. However, because this first phase involves the packaged systems, the overall cost for each conversion will be shared between the homes linked to the centralized septic unit. It is estimated that the per-home cost could be in the region of $6,000 to $9,000.
Subsequent phase (s) for Those with Individual Septic Systems
The design stage for the project’s next phase or phases will begin in July this year. Until this step has been completed, it is impossible to say whether all the subsequent “septic to sewer conversions” planned will be completed in a Phase 2 process or if the remaining work will be split into several phases. This decision will follow the permitting stage in May 2023.
For those homes with single septic systems, the final charge could be in the region of $50K- $75. Payment could then be spread over a 10- or 15-year period. Still, until the companies have been selected and applications for grants applied for, the final figure is difficult to determine at this time. Options to pay the charge as part of the annual property tax instead of a lump sum payment will be available.
The ECCL will continue to liaise with the Village and provide further updates as they become available. The ECCL will periodically update the timeline charts on the ECCL’s website www.esterotoday.com. For those likely to be affected by the “septic to sewer” conversion, please check back every few months to keep up to date with progress.
1 Septic System Pollution Contributes to Disease Outbreaks, Brett Walton, Groundwater, Infrastructure, North America, Pollution, Water News. November 25, 2015. https://www.circleofblue.org/2015/world/septic-system-ease-outbreaks/
The ECCL will continue to monitor this process and keep residents apprised of the impacts for the community