When in drought, blame the rain, especially when it comes to sewage spills.
That’s been the go-to excuse given to Florida regulators by utilities for decades, clean-water advocates say, especially as local governments have spilled countless gallons of raw sewage in our back-yard waters this summer, seemingly with each routine heavy rain.
Linda Young, retired executive director of the Florida Clean Water Network, is sick of it.
If Floridians want a healthy Indian River Lagoon and clean waters, she says they must “pay the piper” in terms of the higher fees and taxes it would take to improve aging sewer systems.
Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated Florida needs $18.4 billion to fix aging sewage infrastructure. Brevard is in year nine of a 10-year, $134 million sewer system upgrade plan.
Still, the spills keep coming, faster than Floridians’ willingness to pay to prevent them, Young says.
The high cost of clean water
“We don’t want to pay the price to live in paradise,” said Young, who worked three decades at the Network, a coalition of more than 300 groups and thousands of individuals who advocate for protecting Florida’s springs, streams, lakes and estuaries .
In February, the Brevard County Commission approved increases in water and sewer rates for residents served by the county, but it may still be too little too late
In Florida, chronic sewage spills cost lots to fix, risk public health and are bad for tourism. Lagoon advocates keep saying that for these and other reasons to do something keep mounting. It rains heavily almost every Florida summer, Young and other conservationists remind, but why is it also a given that sewage spills always tend to follow?
Despite ongoing drought, driven by an ongoing La Niña climate pattern, utilities in Brevard often pointed to recent heavy rains as the cause or major contributing factor in more than 100,000 gallons of sewage spilled along the watershed of the Indian River Lagoon region over the past month .
What’s reported to the state is part of a rainy season ritual that clean-water advocates such as Young have long critiqued: Utilities play the ‘blame-the-rain game,’ they say, each time Florida’s typical seasonal heavy summer rains overtaxed, aged or under-engineered sewer plants.
The sewage spills are more a symptom of aging infrastructure and lack of environmental enforcement, clean-water advocates such as Young say, or plants over capacity and/or under-designed to handle the wastewater volumes that Florida’s heavy rains and ever-increasing residents deliver .
“That very, very predicable excuse has become more ludicrous over the years,” Young said.
Bad month for sewage spills
Thousands of gallons of raw sewage have been spilled along the lagoon watershed over the past month, the most recent on Saturday, when Brevard County spilled thousands of gallons of partially treated wastewater was released on to the ground and contained onsite at the county’s Port St. Johns sewer treatment plant.
“Approximately 25,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater were released from the aeration basin due to overflow caused by heavy rains,” Courtney Duff, safety and environmental coordinator, Brevard County Utility Services, wrote in an emailed in the incident report to Florida Department of Environmental Protection . “The release was contained onsite, and no surface water or storm water was impacted.”
Then, on Aug. 23 and Aug. 24, Brevard County spilled 37,000 gallons of raw sewage after a force main pipe break at 3778 Lake Adelaide Place, in Viera.
“We currently have ongoing contracts inspecting and replacing air release valves in the service area,” Duff wrote in the malfunction report to DEP. “No storm water or surface waters are impacted.”
During excavation for repairs on Sept. 16, the city of Rockledge spilled 16,000 gallons of reclaimed water under the intersection of Murrell Road and St. Michel Drive, recovering about 4,000 gallons via truck.
At about 8 pm Sept. 14, a lift station at Patrick Space Force Base overflowed, spilling 200 gallons of raw sewage, then another lift station at the base overflowed with 50 gallons of raw sewage the next day.
BetweenSep. 14 and Sept. 16, Brevard’s Sykes Creek sewer plant, “received intense rainfall that inundated the system,” overflowing an estimated 15,000 gallons of raw sewage and rainwater mixture, receding back into the manhole near 285 North Plumosa Street on Merritt Island. Lift station pumps are being replaced, according to the DEP public notice. County officials said no surface water or storm water was impacted. The same was the case on Sept. 15, they reported, when another nearby Merritt Island lift station failed, spilling 450 gallons of raw sewage.
According to DEP enforcement and discovery documents, the following sewage spills also happened in Brevard:
- Sept. 13 — DEP penalized Palm Bay $7,250 for an unauthorized discharge of 45,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater on March 3, 2022.
- Sept. 5 — About 1,500 gallons of raw sewage overflowed from a 12-foot-deep manhole at 801 N. John Rhodes Blvd., in Melbourne.
- Aug. 16 — Cape Canaveral spilled 24,508 gallons of raw sewage when a power outage knocked out a generator and backup generator failed to start, due to a blown fuse in the battery. DEP assessed a penalty of $3,750 for the violation.
- July 28 — Cocoa Beach release of 7,800 gallons of raw sewage, for which DEP issued a penalty of $1,500.
- April 5 to April 12 — Titusville released 175,200 gallons of raw sewage, for which DEP penalized the city $15,000. The city is also penalized $750 for a Feb. 8 release of 50 gallons of raw sewage, with direct impact to the lagoon.
Even some of the newer developments in Brevard are plagued with sewage problems from overtaxed systems.
In March of 2021, DEP put Brevard County under a consent order for exceeding nitrogen limits at its South Central Regional sewer plant in Viera, and issued $6,750 in penalties. On Nov. 30, 2019, the county notified DEP that the plant had an unauthorized discharge or unpermitted sanitary sewer overflow of about 134,400 gallons of raw wastewater due to a force main break at Wickham Road and I-95.
“The sewage issue points to major problems with the infrastructure,” said Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former enforcement attorney with the state Department of Environmental Protection. “The federal money is there (for sewer upgrades), particularly under the CARES Act.”
CARES stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed signed into law by former President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020.
In one of the largest sewage spills in recent years, Titusville discharged at least 7.2 million gallons of sewage into ponds at Sand Point Park in late December 2020, when an old sewer pipe broke beneath one of the ponds, which flow to the lagoon. The city put in the artificial islands in lieu of a $199,000 DEP penalty.
“The December 2020 sewage discharge directly into the IRL (Indian River Lagoon) is an obvious example of how our government authorizes the use of the IRL (Indian River Lagoon) as a toilet,” Lesley Blackner, a Jupiter environmental attorney, wrote of the incident in an email.
Blackner’s representing the nonprofit Bear Warriors United, which plans to sue DEP over what they assert is the agency’s lax sewage enforcement. “All that poop and pee has to go somewhere, and our government says it’s okay to put it in the lagoon. State law allows this. State law expressly authorizes the use of the IRL as a toilet.”
Yet Brevard keeps permitting more and more homes to hook up to the county’s aging, overtaxed sewage infrastructure. In May, Brevard County Commissioners voted to add a 58-acre development to Port St. John, despite the county’s sewer plant in that area already being at 86% capacity.
“Who’s going to pay for the new sewage plant?” said Sandra Sullivan, a South Patrick Shores resident who spoke in opposition to the new development. Sullivan said the county is kicking the can down the road on funding sewer expansions, by not increasing impact fees. “Then they are going to bust ‘the cap,'” she said.
Brevard County has a “charter cap” provision in its charter, prohibiting increases of more than 3% in the amount of money raised from property taxes from year to year.
That 3% cap does not include new construction. So the amount of new construction in Brevard that entered the tax rolls in 2022 contributed to have the county’s budget plan include lower tax rates, while not reducing services to county residents.
“The concern is the people will end up footing the bill and not the developers,” Sullivan added. “The people who already paid their impact fees when they bought their homes will end up paying the cost of growth and inflation because the County has not updated impact fees in nearly two decades.”
The impacts of La Nina
Brevard’s latest sewage spills come in a year in which the Melbourne area has been a few inches below normal rainfall for the year. According to a Sept. 8 update by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a La Niña climate pattern is favored to continue through the Northern Hemisphere through next winter.
La Niña is a cooler-than-usual pulse of water near the equator in the Pacific Ocean — the flip side of El Niño, which is warmer-than-usual water in the same region. Both patterns, which happen every several years, alter global climate patterns.
La Niña typically results in warm, dry conditions in Florida.
Young blames chronic sewage spills on aging infrastructure and DEP’s failure to force utilities to upgrade their systems to handle Florida’s typical summer and fall rains and growing population.
“They let them get to overcapacity and they don’t make them have storage capacity,” Young said of sewer plants along the lagoon region. “They don’t have any idea where their sewage is going.”