Above: Septic tank extracted from a house in Miami Shores (Photograph: Erika Carrillo)
Every time there is heavy rain, the house of a man we will call David Alvarez (who chose not to be identified for personal reasons) is surrounded by contaminants emanating not from one, but from the two septic tanks he has in the yard and garden in front of his property located just three blocks from Biscayne Bay.
Although it is not his intention, his home and those of thousands of residents in Miami-Dade County contribute daily to the environmental damage that is destroying the bay because with each toilet flush, a cycle of contamination is unleashed. Properties like his, located in Miami Shores, discharge fecal matter and other waste into underground sewers, whose residues end up in the waters
of Biscayne. “Tests conducted on residues from drugs and other products consumed by humans, which later come out in fecal matter or urine, penetrate the sewer system or septic tanks, and flow into the bay,” says Professor Todd Crowl, Director of the Environmental Institute at FIU.
Above: Todd Crowl with staff from the FIU Institute of Environment deploying a buoy in a Biscayne canal to monitor water quality.
Since the 1960s, and fearing irreversible environmental degradation, the federal government alerted Miami Dade and recommended the elimination of septic systems. However, in our densely populated urban area, this recommendation was completely ignored. Instead, a comprehensive investigation conducted by HUELLA ZERO revealed that approximately 15% of all residential and commercial properties have been built without a direct connection to the public water and sewer system.
Above: Irela Bagué, Director of the Bay Protection Office.
A review of public records in Miami Dade shows that out of the 836,776 properties we found registered, 120,000 would be using a septic tank. According to a county analysis, as of 2018, 56% of these septic systems were deteriorated, not properly filtering the waste, and all that decay ended up in the waterways and the bay. Mayor Daniella Levine Cava acknowledged that “we have a crisis.”
In the absence of sewer systems, septic tanks function as underground wastewater treatment plants. When faulty, they have leaks that release contaminants and can pose risks to public health, environmental impacts, and property issues.
During heavy rains, these underground pits become more problematic, explained JP Booker, Florida Director of the environmental organization Ocean Conservancy. “On one hand, storm drains get flooded due to heavy rainfall and/or high tides and tend to overflow, the same goes for these tanks. When this happens, wastewater travels to the canals and this collection of infection ends up in coastal waters,” he said.
Above: Aerial view of the canal outlets to Biscayne Bay or Miami Little River??? (Photograph: Randy García)
Neighborhoods like Little River, located east of the city of Miami, have at least 300 houses with their septic tanks so damaged that it has forced the county to take immediate action. “With rain flooding, the wells in that area are submerged, and that fecal matter reaches Biscayne,” said Irela Bagué, Director of the Bay Protection Office.
FIU Institute of Environment testing the water in the canals of Miami
In the face of the environmental emergency, homes like David’s are participating in a plan called “Connect 2 Program” aimed at connecting 12,000 properties with the most deteriorated tanks to the public sewer system. Some of these connections are being funded with federal funds, but the County and taxpayers will have to reach into their pockets to pay the $90 million cost of this project over the next 5 years.
Above: Joshua Bravo from the Water and Sewer Department explains the process of connecting a septic tank to the sewer system. (Video: Erika Carrillo)
The process may be inconvenient, but they assure that once initiated, it’s fast and effective. “First, the tank is located, the house is connected to the new pipeline, the dirt is cleaned, and then the well is filled with sand to seal it,” explained Joshua Bravo from the Water and Sewer Department, who works on the renovations.
As an additional measure, the county will also connect another 1,000 commercial properties by installing 11 new pumping stations. They estimate that with these connections, 500,000 gallons of sewage from septic systems could be eliminated daily, thereby reducing the load of harmful nutrients in groundwater and in the canals, as all that waste often ends up in Biscayne Bay.
The county government projects that to connect properties with tanks, they would need to make an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars. This year, they have already received $20 million in federal funds earmarked for that conversion and drainage improvement plan. Additionally, the state legislature approved certain funds in the general budget that will be distributed in the most affected areas.
Despite all the efforts and allocation of resources, the root of the problem persists because in Miami Dade, new constructions are still allowed to install septic tanks, and as long as that continues, the risk of contamination will always exist. “It’s like an endless cycle,” said county commissioner Raquel Regalado, a champion of the fight to eliminate septic tanks, whose district has the second-highest number of tanks in Miami Dade.
In 2021, Regalado led the approval of an ordinance in Miami-Dade that now requires all new buildings to install modern tanks meeting certain environmental protection requirements, and a deadline was set for implementation by January of this year, 2023. “Not only are they the number one cause of pollution in the bay, but they also harm our water systems,” she stated.
Video: Agenda of the Infrastructure, Operations, and Innovations Committee of Miami-Dade County. Commissioner Raquel Regalado in a public session on septic tanks – 01:42:00
For the approval of this measure, six months of meetings were invested involving authorities, scientists, environmentalists, and 30 construction companies. However, in a recent commission meeting, Regalado complained and said she was tired of dealing with the resistance of some builders who request “special permits” to bypass the regulation.
The new ordinance also requires that, starting this year, the property appraiser’s office will have to add information about septic tanks to the public database. The idea is for homeowners and future buyers to know the type of system they have in their homes, understand it, and take responsibility for keeping it up to date.
Buyers of properties with sewers will have to sign documents acknowledging their awareness of the issue. Additionally, there will be a special marking for new houses and those built before 2023 because the latter could be subject to inspections.
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