Marco Island Sewer System

Art Cooper’s statement in the MITA newsletter that more sewers aren’t needed yet on Marco Island is interesting.  His reason for recommending no action on the sewers is very simple:  the water  in the canals isn’t bad enough yet. 

This raises several questions – including the question of what standards Art was using to determine how much pollution we could tolerate in our canals before we did anything, and how much lead time we would need to make sure that the canals didn’t degrade to a point below Art’s standards of pollution.  In doing research for my reply to Art’s “canal plan” for the island, I found out that the City was already pursuing the STEP program to ease the pollution problem on the island by allowing each homeowner to hook his septic system up to a sewer system if he so desired.

I found out the good and bad points of the STEP system, and reported them to you.  I noted that you would pay NOTHING if you decided to keep your septic system as is, and would pay about $3300.00 to convert and then about $12/mo “extra” if you converted to a sewer/septic system.  If you didn’t convert your sewage system, the buyer of your home would have to convert and pay the $3300.00 “impact fee” when he did.   As each home converted, the pollution threat to our canals would be lessened.  But how real is the threat of pollution?  Should we take action now, or wait until we detect pollution?  Art says that “island-wide sanitary sewers have not yet been addressed by the (Five Year Comprehensive) Plan.”  Is he right?

Roughly 65% of the homes on the island are now on septic tanks.  There are still many homes to be built.  The sewage problem will continue to increase as more and more people move onto the island.  Are the canals threatened?

As you know, the storm drains collect water runoff from yards, driveways, streets, swales and other surfaces of the island.  That water then drains directly into the canals.  No problem if the water is “clean.”  But if that water becomes polluted, the canals may not be able to handle the pollution – and will become polluted.  The “effluent” from the drain fields (“leach lines”) might indirectly become a part of this discharge – and as more and more septic tanks are installed the chances of that happening become greater and greater.  So how long do we wait before we begin to do something?

Art Cooper, writing in the MITA newsletter, says that “Island-wide sanitary sewers have not yet been addressed by the (City’s Five-Year Comprehensive) Plan . . .”   This isn’t true.  The City has addressed this issue in the Plan – and in some detail.  Pages 33 – 36 are titled “Sanitary Sewer Sub-Element,” and deal exclusively with the sewer plans for the island.  That sub-element of the Plan is followed immediately by the “Stormwater Management Sub-Element,” since the two are tied so closely together. 

The City’s Comprehensive Plan for the island is very interesting.  The sewer and storm water sub-elements are both part of the “Infrastructure Element,” which includes Potable Water, Sewers, Storm Water, Solid Waste, Aquifer Recharge, and other items.  When Russ Colombo tells you he’s going to keep the city in handcuffs, and not allow “too much” capital spending, you should ask yourselves how much “too much” is – and then ask yourselves if you want Russ Colombo and MITA dictating “how much” can be done.  Can you blame Russ for looking for loopholes like Section 6.02?   He knows as well as you do that if his rhetoric is followed the island will deteriorate and his property value will be hurt just like yours will. 

I can’t blame either Russ or Art Cooper for using Section 6.02 as a loophole – but do we want our island run by using loopholes while we all spout our “anti-tax” rhetoric, or do we want responsible government?  Fortunately, there are other governments besides the City of Marco Island – and we may be saved from ourselves.

First, there is the State of  Florida.  Governor Bush recently lauched a state-wide study of septic tank pollution.  It looks like we aren’t the only ones who are worried, folks.  The State of Florida has between 2 and 3 million septic tanks state-wide, and our state government is concerned enough to begin a state-wide study of the problem using several state agencies.  Currently, the State Dept. of Community Affairs, the State Dept. of Environmental Protection, the State Dept. of Health, and Water Management Districts throughout the state are involved.  The “study” will eventually turn into mandated “action.”

At the Federal Level we have the “Clean Water Act,”  which includes a program called the “National Pollution Discharge Elimination System,” or “NPDES.”  Phase I began in 1991, and was targeted at the industrial pollution discharge into our rivers and other bodies of water.  Phase II began a few months ago.  It deals with, among other things, storm water discharge and the effluent from septic tanks that might be a part of that discharge.

The problem on the island is not the septic tanks themselves.  The problem is soil saturation by the “effluent” that is drained off the top of your septic tank and then “leached out” into the soil of your yard.  Both the state and the federal governments are coming, folks.  Do we want to be ready for them, or do we want to follow Art’s plan and wait until the water quality in our canals has “degraded to such an extent to require this action?”

I hope we don’t stop the City from implementing STEP (if we can get Florida Water to go along with it).  It won’t cost you anything if you decide to stay on your septic tank.  Your buyer will have to pay for conversion.  But the longer we dither over this, the more homes will be built with septic tank systems rather than sewer hookups.  If  we enact the City’s “sewer plans,” then new homes will be built in accordance with our “sewer specs.”  This, plus the “turnover” of homes on the island will greatly decrease the threat of pollution to our canals – and those of you already on septic systems who have been “grandfathered in” can relax – you don’t have to do anything. 

The State and National governments have their agendas – but what is our City doing?  Well, the City just put in a program to monitor waste water on the island.  It checks canals, waste (storm) water discharge, septic tank areas, waterway tidal exchanges, and sewered areas for Total Coliform, Fecal Coliform and Total Nitrogen (Nitrate/Nitrite) levels.  Standards have been adopted from other agencies, notably the F.A.C.

We may not know the results of this program for some time.  At that time, we may discover that Art’s standards have already been reached – or the canals may still be clean.  Once again – are you sure you want to tolerate pollution in your canals?  If so, then how much will you tolerate – and for how long, before you decide to do something?  And when you finally decide to do something, will the Federal and State governments already be here – with their guide-lines on what you now must do because you weren’t responsible enough to do anything to begin with?

Do you think they’ll care when you complain that you couldn’t negotiate with Florida Water because your “ace in the hole,” the threat of condemnation, was just an empty threat due to the spending cap - and the utility laughed in your face?  Or do you think the State and Federal governments will also laugh at you and tell you to get on with it – and clean up your mess.  Are you sure you want to wait for Art?  Are you sure you want to “handcuff” your city?

 Russ is an old union negotiator, and I enjoy watching him work.  He has no illusions about who his enemy is – and his speeches from the podium are textbook examples of union negotiating.  Every speech contains at least one threat, very skillfully and politely delivered.  The council is listening – and they’re getting the message.  I’ve worked for some real masters of the art, and I’ve seen the companies cave over and over again.  Sometimes they caved when they had us “on the ropes” and didn’t realize it.  I loved working for these men, and I loved watching them get every nickel they could out of the company.  But now Russ is working against me – and the rest of you. 

He’s tough – and he won’t quit until he squeezes everything he can from the

negotiation that the city doesn’t even know is going on. 

If I had to bet on a “winner,”  I’d bet on Russ – not the City.                                                                              

                                                                   

GEORGE LESTER

 


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