Septic Tanks: The Big Problem Bubbling Beneath Us

Since at least the 1970’s, Miami-Dade County has been trying to solve the problem posed by the prevalence of septic tanks throughout the County. As sea levels rise, so does the groundwater. And the more groundwater rises, the more our septic systems are likely to fail.[1] A failing septic system means human waste leaks into the groundwater and contaminates the freshwater aquifer that provides our drinking water. Now, in 2021, new septic tanks are still permitted every year. The question is: What are our local leaders doing to address this problem?

It appears that our local leaders are drafting reports and recommendations. But this is not enough. In November 2018, an initial report titled “Septic Systems Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise” was developed by Miami-Dade County Department of Regulatory & Economic Resources, Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer, and Florida Department of Health to examine the functionality of an estimated 100,000 plus septic systems.[2] On December 10, 2020, at the request of County Commissioners Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Jean Monestime, a Plan of Action Report was prepared by Miami-Dade County Department of Regulatory & Economic Resources and Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer as a follow-up to the 2018 report.[3] This report provides a more refined focus to identify the most vulnerable septic systems.

It has taken decades to merely identify the most vulnerable, and potentially dangerous, septic systems. Now, the County proposes prioritizing a few thousand over the remaining tens of thousands. Of the 120,000 septic tanks identified by the report, the County recommends prioritizing the conversion to sewer of only 1,900 tanks considered “vulnerable to failure” that currently abut sewer infrastructure.[4] Next on the priority list are those 10,100 septic tanks that, although not identified as “vulnerable to failure,” also abut sewer infrastructure.[5] And third on the priority list is new public infrastructure to convert the approximately 11,600 tanks identified as vulnerable to failure by 2040. Not to mention that of these, at least 9,000 are identified as being vulnerable to failure by 2020. These—the ones that have likely already failed—are not prioritized as number one or two by the County.

While these priorities may seem skewed, the reason is simple: there is no funding to prioritize vulnerable septic tanks unless they are already abutting existing sewer infrastructure. As in all government debates, all roads lead back to funding. The report estimates that homeowners’ expenses to convert from septic to sewer range from $7,500 to a whopping $40,000.[6]

After decades of talk and inaction, it is obvious that this is a problem too big for local government. Our Congressional representatives have requested, through the annual appropriations process, federal funding to begin to address the issue. Mayor Levine Cava is also on record stating that funds from President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan will go to septic to sewer conversion work.  But this issue is not one that the federal government will swoop in and fix. This is a Florida issue that should be addressed by our state representatives. What is being done by Tallahassee to address this dire issue in our community? The answer is, in short, nothing. Of course there are discussions, but nothing substantive is coming out of Tallahassee to help Miami-Dade County. This past legislative session, bills in the House and Senate were filed to change the property assessed clean energy (PACE) program to allow consumers to pay for septic-to-sewer conversions through a financing program. This would have been a great option to give folks an opportunity to address this issue but the bills were killed during committee discussion.

As a Miami-Dade County homeowner with a septic tank, I am happy to see our leaders requesting federal and state funds and seemingly making this a priority. However, the most recent Action Plan from the County is not aggressive enough. It only prioritizes those failing septic tanks already abutting sewer infrastructure. It does not include a plan to phase out the remaining tens of thousands of septic tanks throughout the County. In addition, our state leaders need to step up and put this bipartisan issue at the forefront of their respective party priorities. With hurricane season upon us, heavy summer rainfall, and frequent flooding, we must continue to pressure our local, state, and federal officials to address this issue.

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