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Wekiva woes hinge on septic study - Orlando Sentinel

September 8, 2015
Restoring the health of the Wekiva River depends significantly on a new study that may finally solve, though not soon, the hotly politicized question of whether household septic tanks are killing the waterway.

Details of the study emerged this week as state officials acknowledged lengthy delays in launching a Wekiva restoration plan that would be sanctioned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

They blamed the laggard pace on the challenge of anticipating state lawmakers' positions on water pollution and septic tanks. Past efforts to tackle septic-tank pollution have been attacked by members of the Legislature as unfair to homeowners.

"One of the big reasons we've been taking a little bit longer is we are trying to find the best way to address one of the major sources of pollution," said Moira Homann, a DEP coordinator.

She explained to local environmental officials that her agency wants to assemble solutions for septic tanks that will address the Wekiva River, as well as hundreds of springs and rivers in the state.

"We took cues from the Legislature," Homann said.

Following the lead of lawmakers on environmental matters is not the way DEP routinely does business.

For example, the agency's ecosystem restoration chief, Drew Bartlett, recently urged Central Florida officials to show leadership in the even more politically thorny challenges of water supplies.

Wekiva River and Wekiwa Springs were diagnosed by the state in 2007 as stricken with nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

Among other woes, the pollution is blamed for feeding heavy, harmful growths of algae.

Sources of contaminants include farm and lawn fertilizers, storm runoff from streets and discharges of treated sewage and effluent that percolate from septic systems into the ground.

Not waiting for DEP to approve a detail-packed plan, local governments have forged ahead with dozens of projects to reduce the amount of treated sewage and stormwater flowing into the Wekiva River and its tributaries.

Among them, Altamonte Springs is about to start up a complex system designed to collect stormwater, cleanse it and pump it along with effluent to Apopka for irrigation of lawns and green spaces.

But the overall effort has been hobbled by DEP's delays over septic tanks, said Nancy Prine of the Friends of Wekiva River, an environmental group long concerned about the role of septic tanks.

Prine said she is mystified that the state's top environmental officials don't show more resolve in solving one of the most vexing issues for springs and rivers.

"I don't understand the relationship where you do things to satisfy the Legislature," Prine said. "Isn't it up to the DEP leadership to say this is how it should be done?"

DEP said it is hoping that its newly launched study of septic tanks will end controversy over previous studies, which have blamed household septic systems for polluting springs and rivers but have been criticized as inconclusive.

The new study centers on 11 homes near the Wekiva, where septic systems were outfitted with instruments that measure contaminants and water flow.

Andrea Samson, a critic of efforts to reform rules for septic system near the Wekiva, has endorsed the study as likely to bring the most solid science to date.

The study will last a year and the results will be applied to a strategy that could take three years to formulate.

"I know that saying three years could cause some concern because it seems like a very long period of time," Homann said. "Please keep in mind that we are saying 'within three years,' and we could have the plan completed sooner than that."

kspear@orlandosentinel.com

Copyright 2015, Orlando Sentinel

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