The Town of Sewall’s Point is moving toward the installation of a sewer system. And although the Town Council has vowed that hook up will not be mandatory and that there will be no assessments, it appears that the latest move puts the camel’s nose under the tent.

At the January 10th meeting, the commissioners voted to submit a grant application for Phase I of a Septic to Sewer program outlined by Captec Engineering in a study commissioned by the town. Phase I will allow 148 homes to hook up to a grinder system. At the December meeting, the approval for Phase I was conditioned on the securing of grant funding and a Memorandum of Understanding from Martin County Utilities regarding the number of homes permitted to access the waste disposal system via a grinder system.

However, the grant application states “This initial installation will provide the first 148 homes with access to sewer. A combination of a conventional vacuum sewer, gravity and grinder system will be implemented to achieve hook up into the Martin County owned and maintained utility.”

The Captec Engineering study stated on page 4, “In addition, the Town Commission requires no mandatory special assessment and hook ups unless failure of septic tank drainfields. However, Option 1 is the only program to avoid expensive upfront cost which would require a mandatory special assessment.  (emphasis added).  In order to provide sewer to the entire south Sewall’s Point area of 706 homes, it will require the town to spend an estimated $29,548,900 and will “Require a Mandatory Special Assessment on all residents of South Sewall’s Point to cover the difference in costs needed to reach the required 50/50 match unless other means of making up the difference is found. “ (page 33)

The argument for converting to a sewer system is that the Town of Sewall’s point is polluting the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon or has the potential to pollute it if sea levels rise by 2050. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that the Mean High Water/King Tide elevations at the Town of Sewall’s Point will increase from 2.58 ft NAVD (2020) to approximately 3.55 ft NAVD by 2050. Should that happen, many conventional septic systems would be flooded and leach sewage into these bodies of water.

The underlying assumption to this argument is that septic systems pollute while sewer treatment plants do not. The Guardian on 10 September 2020 reported “Between 2015 and March 2020, there were 13,984 reported sewage spills in the state, according to data obtained from the Florida department of environmental protection (FDEP). The FDEP confirmed the statistics obtained from the data. During this period a staggering 1,658,165,304 gallons of sewage were spilled in Florida, after initial recovery efforts were completed.”

A more recent article in the Palm Beach Post on 11 December 2022 stated that after hurricane IAN, “at least 312 spill incidents were reported to DEP during the week after Ian.”  The article went on to state that according to Public Employees for Environmental Reporting (PEER), “Almost daily sewage discharges have become a way of life in Florida”.  Utilities state wide leaked at least 30 million gallons of raw sewage in 2021 as recorded in 900 emergency alerts from a dozen counties. PEER feels that this number is under estimated since 60% of the known discharges failed to report the volume released. Municipal sewage treatment plants across the state have problems. When there is a failure of a septic system, the magnitude of the negative environmental impact is small; however, when there is a failure of a municipal system the negative environmental impact is greatly magnified.

Is the Town of Sewall’s Point polluting the lagoon? FDEP data shows that the Lagoon here is neither impaired nor classified as “water not attaining standards.”  The Florida Oceanographic Society concurs, rating the Lagoon water here “good” or “ideal” except when there are discharges from Lake Okeechobee. FDEP Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP), did not consider the Town of Sewall’s Point as a priority contributor and was not required (emphasis added) to meet the 10-year reduction target for total nitrogen and phosphorus.

So, there may be a problem in 27 years, but there is no problem today.

With that in mind, let’s examine the options:

  1. Move forward with conversion of septic to sewer: As previously stated this would require an expenditure of an estimated $29,548,900 to install a combination of Vacuum, Gravity and Grinder systems to encompass all 708 homes in South Sewall’s Point. As the Captec report pointed out, this would “Require a Mandatory Special Assessment on all residents of South Sewall’s Point to cover the difference in costs needed to reach the required 50/50 match unless other means of making up the difference is found. “ (page 33). On the positive side, this option would move all the waste water to Martin County Utilities. On the negative side, a Vacuum building will have to be built and maintained and as Captec pointed out on page 28,  “Developments with multiple sewer conveyance systems are difficult to repair efficiently.“
  2. Do nothing: If the projections of NOAA are to be believed, this is not an option as approximately, up to 172 homes will be impacted by the rising sea levels by 2050. As an aside, The 2020 Martin County Unified Local Mitigation Strategy states on p78 that Martin County’s  vulnerability to, and probability of, sea level rise is low. This represents approximately 24% of the homes in South Sewall’s Point. If the drain fields of these homes are inundated, it will add to the pollution of the Indian River Lagoon.

Sewalls Point Septic

Figure 1. Town of Sewall’s Point Septic Tank Drainfields (from CAPTEC 2017)

  1. Replace the septic systems with Advanced Aerobic Treatment Units: According to the EPA, aerobic treatment systems apply the same technology as large-scale sewage plants but on a smaller scale. This option is another one of the great alternative septic systems for small lots, lots with suboptimal soil conditions, or lots near bodies of water that are sensitive to pollution. The EPA has developed a Clean Water State Revolving Fund to fund decentralized wastewater treatment systems.

In 2015, FDEP funded a study called Florida Onsite Sewage Nitrogen Reduction Strategies Study, which concluded that ATUs with established nitrogen reduction/NSF 245 can reduce TN from the influent by 50% to 65%. (page 57 and Table 8 on page 58)

The Florida DEP developed a Septic Upgrade Incentive Program “to encourage homeowners to voluntarily remediate existing conventional Onsite Sewage Treatment and Disposal Systems (OSTDS) to include nitrogen reducing enhancements. The Program offers subsidies, only in designated areas within a county – identified and delineated by the Department as Priority Focus Areas (PFAs), in amounts up to $10,000 per system. “ Unfortunately, this program is not available in Martin County and Sewall’s Point; our area is not a Priority Focus Area.

The town code can be modified to require that all new construction and all septic system replacements will be required to install an Aerobic Treatment Unit with established nitrogen reduction. This will have a minimal impact on the residents of the town, water quality will be maintained, there will be no ongoing maintenance costs to the town and no debt load or mandatory assessments will be incurred.

In conclusion, it comes down to the question of balancing environmental concerns while being fiscally prudent and minimizing the impact on the taxpayers of a community. A code change as outlined in the third option will achieve that goal while following and conforming to the standards set by the EPA and FDEP.