Miami-Dade races to replace polluting septic tanks. Can it keep pace with sea rise?
Underneath many homes and businesses in Miami-Dade is a concrete box. In goes human waste, and out comes somewhat filtered water.
They’re septic tanks, the old-fashioned version of waste management that has mostly been replaced around the country with sewer lines and sewage treatment plants. But as climate change sends water levels higher — both at sea and underneath our feet — those boxes aren’t working like they used to, and their stinky, toxic byproducts are flowing into Miami-Dade’s aquifer and Biscayne Bay, and in some cases, turning front lawns into fetid swamps.
South Florida has known they were a problem since the 1950s, but work to convert the estimated 120,000 (or likely more) that remain in the state’s most populated county has been excruciatingly slow. That is, until now.
Since 2020, Miami-Dade has been aggressively pursuing federal and state cash to rip out the tanks and connect homeowners to sewage lines. The county has won nearly $488 million in grants and is pursuing another $56 million to help get it done, said Roy Coley, head of Miami-Dade’s Water and Sewer Department.
“We’re making huge inroads to get these things going,” he said. “Across the county, in some fashion of either planning or design or installation, we have about 11,000 sewer connections in process.”
That’s a huge jump from the decade previous, when the county converted just 436 tanks.
Roy Coley, head of Miami-Dade Water and Sewage Dept., left, Miami-Dade Commissioner Keon Hardemon, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, and Mayor Omarr C. Nickerson, far right, break ground on the Connect 2 Project. On Thursday, January 27, 2022 Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava launched Connect 2 Protect, a multi-year, countywide program that provides sanitary sewer service to residents with septic tank systems just northeast of the Shore Crest neighborhood. Carl Juste [email protected]
Last week, the ribbon was cut on the latest project — 60 more homes — in the Ives Estate neighborhood in northeast Miami-Dade last week. Those homes are already close enough to existing county sewer lines to connect, making the project relatively cheap at about $2 million. Half of that comes from the county, and the other half, which homeowners would normally have to pay for, comes from County Commissioner Oliver Gilbert’s district fund.
“How we actually save our environment, how we preserve our Bay, how we help our residents and increase economic opportunities, is by eliminating every septic tank and not just in this district but in this county,” Gilbert said at a press conference announcing the project. “When we say saving the environment and saving the Bay, it sounds like something that’s really big, it’s really not. Do one at a time.”
“I think we have eliminated a lot of the roadblocks,” said County Commissioner Raquel Regalado, who has spearheaded many of the new septic policies, most of which passed unanimously.
And yet, because sewer pipes and pumps don’t yet reach every corner of the county, Miami-Dade is still approving new septic tanks.
The county is also facing a time crunch for getting rid of its old ones. That same study that found 120,000 tanks remaining found that about 800 are already failing on a sunny day. During one of South Florida’s trademark heavy rains, around 58,000 septic tanks could be compromised. By 2030, that number could jump to 67,000.
“If we do it right and we get buy-in and we put in our grants on time, I think this work can be done in a decade,” Regalado said. “I think that’s ambitious, considering how long it took us to get here, but I’m committed to seeing it through.”
$500 MILLION FOR A $4 BILLION ISSUE
Coley said he’s proud of the nearly $500 million his department has brought in to help convert some of the county’s most at-risk spots away from Bay-polluting septic tanks.
“We’re just asking for money everywhere it can be asked for and we’ve gotten so many award notices we feel like we’re really doing exactly what we should be,” he said. “We just gotta get the awards converted into dollars and get to work.”
A graphic explaining the relationship between groundwater levels and the effectiveness of a septic tank. A new report commissioned by Miami-Dade County shows that half of the county’s septic tanks break down yearly, a problem that sea level rise will worsen. Miami-Dade County
There are still hurdles to completing the job — starting with the staggering costs of conversions. That same estimate that found Miami-Dade has 120,000 residential septic tanks to convert, also pegged the cost of getting rid of them all at nearly $4 billion. And that doesn’t even include the cost to the homeowner, which runs about $15,000 per home.
While some wealthier areas still heavily rely on septic tanks, like Coral Gables and Pinecrest, plenty of lower-income communities do too. And that high price tag can put conversion out of reach for many.
“We would like to accelerate and the biggest challenge we see to acceleration is the cost to the private property owner,” Coley said. “The process for the private property owner is a bit burdensome and the cost is, of course, burdensome.”
The county has tried to limit impacts on residents by leaning on government grants and loans to extend the county’s sewer pipes and pump stations into communities that don’t have them.
This month, the county is working on a plan to create a low-to-no-interest loan or grant program to help low-income homeowners foot their end of the bill. The Septic to Sewer Trust Fund already has $5 million in it.
Jeremy Langford, an employee at AA ARON Super Rooter, center, cleans out a septic tank at a home in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, September 30, 2020. MATIAS J. OCNER [email protected]
Darry Swartz, a 76-year-old retired business owner, said he didn’t pay anything for his home’s conversion from the septic tank in his Edgewater home to pipes connecting with the municipal sewage system, thanks to county grant dollars.
He said a crew came to his house in April, cracked open the tank and filled it with sand. That ended his monthly ritual of pouring Rid-X septic treatment down a toilet to keep the system clean.
While they wait for more money to roll in, Coley said his team has plenty of work to keep them busy, in places like Ojus, Coral Terrace and Little River. “We’ve got lots of little projects going on, we’ve got to keep working where we’ve got resources,” he said.
NEW TANKS STILL COMING IN
While old tanks are targeted for elimination, the county is nevertheless still approving new ones — mostly in areas where there aren’t county pipes and pump stations to connect to, like in South Dade. For those, the county has also upped its standards for what kinds of septic tanks are allowed. Better-performing (and more expensive) tanks made of stronger materials or sitting higher in dirt mounds on the property are now preferred.
And now every single new septic tank that’s approved has to be personally signed off on by a professional engineer, and homeowners have to monitor the tank for two years. If it starts leaking, residents have to pay to fix it, immediately.
“There was a point where it was cheaper to put in a concrete septic tank than it was to connect,” Regalado said. “Now it’s more expensive to install a fiberglass septic tank.”
More than half of Miami-Dade County’s 105,000 residential septic tanks have annual issues. A new report commissioned by the county shows that half of the county’s septic tanks break down yearly, a problem that sea level rise will worsen. Miami-Dade County
Although Miami-Dade has a 1970s policy on the books that could allow it to force homeowners to connect to sewage if they’re close enough, it has never used it. But in the last few years, the rules have changed to make it harder not to connect. For one, Miami-Dade shrunk the distance where you’re required to connect to “under a mile,” Regalado said.
“Before, what people did was let’s say you’re building a development, you start in the far back lot to avoid feasible distance and work your way up. You can’t do that anymore,” she said.
The work is nowhere near done, she said. The permitting process for removing is arduous, and inspection and enforcement of leaky or broken tanks are still lacking. And the county still mostly relies on new development to front the costs of expanding sewer lines into new areas. And there’s still at least 110,000 tanks to go, with limited time to do it. But Regalado said the progress in the last three years alone, after nearly half a century of stagnation, is proof that the county is taking this seriously.
“This is a difficult thing we all have to do together,” she said. “People are starting to see that we could do this, and we could do it in the next few years and that could be transformation for our community.” Miami Herald staff writer
Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.