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Septic systems, fertilizer use top water quality concerns at workshop

February 28, 2018
By TIFFANY REPECKI ( , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

The impact of overburdened septic tanks, use of fertilizer and lack of local mangrove mitigation were some of the concerns discussed today at the Captiva Community Panel's second public workshop.

As part of the process for updating the Captiva Code, the panel scheduled four workshops through February and March to obtain feedback from the community on subjects from beach issues and water quality, to traffic and development. An online survey for property owners will provide extra insight.

The first workshop, held on Feb. 13, centered around beach issues. This second one focused on the island's water quality and the quality of its adjacent waters, as well as shoreline protection issues.

Article Photos

Rae Ann Wessel, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation's natural resource policy director, provides some insight into fertilizer use and treated water in terms of impacting water quality.

"We want to hear what's on your mind," panel President David Mintz told attendees today.

He emphasized that the workshop discussions can go beyond the planned list of topics.

"If you have other issues that you want to raise, we want to hear them," Mintz said.

A large part of the discussions centered around septic tanks. Panel member Jay Brown, who is overseeing the panel's wastewater alternatives study, explained that most homes rely on unregulated conventional systems, while some use the newer performance-based systems that are regulated.

"There is utterly no regulation in place today for those," he said of the conventional ones.

Brown noted that the performance-based systems have to pass an annual evaluation.

In addition, South Seas Island Resort is served by a sewer system and central treatment facility operated by the Florida Government Utility Authority. The 'Tween Waters Inn Island Resort, Sunset Captiva and Captiva Shores own and operate their own package wastewater treatment facilities.

Some attendees voiced concern over the lack of regulations for conventional systems.

Others wondered about the quality of water the facilities were discharging post-treatment.

Rae Ann Wessel, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation's natural resource policy director, offered some insight. She explained that while the treated wastewater is safe for irrigation and such, it is not potable and has high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus - known to increase algae growth.

Wessel explained that only an "advanced" wastewater treatment facility can remove the excess chemicals, and the equipment is not cheap. She noted that Sanibel has been trying to obtain legislative funding for about three years in order to change its central sewer system into an advanced one.

Another issue debated was the overcrowding of rental homes beyond their permitted septic tank capacity. According to code, it is illegal to build underneath a residence - or the "ground floor." But, some property owners have enclosed the ground floor for additional bedrooms to increase the rent.

The problem is the septic system is only set up to handle the original number of occupants.

"The question is what do we think about it, what do we do about it, do we touch it?" Mintz asked of those in attendance. "Do we, as a community, want to deal with that and face that issue?"

Resident Ann Brady voiced support for looking into the issue.

"I'm not sure why we would avoid the issue. It's only controversial if you're not following the rules," she said. "I don't think we should ignore it because so many people are doing it and it's controversial."

Resident Joan Sherman agreed, calling the issue a "community" one. She explained that a septic tank that is uncared for or is overburdened will eventually become a problem for adjacent homeowners.

Also at the workshop, attendees questioned the impact of fertilizer use on water quality.

"We have a really strong connection with nutrients and macroalgae," Wessel said, citing the time a research team tried to bring up fish for testing following the Lake Okeechobee releases in 2016.

"They got so much algae, so much seaweed, they couldn't lift these into the boats," she said. "The nutrients in the water are doing what fertilizer does on land - plants respond to them."

"We don't see the same direct connection with red tide," Wessel added.

Red tide starts out in the ocean and moves on shore.

"There is currently a red tide," she said.

Irritation to the eyes, nose and throat are the most notable symptoms from it.

"We are seeing more frequent and longer durations of blooms of this organism," Wessel said.

Generally occurring in the fall, researchers are looking at iron - like dust circulating from the Sahara and getting into ocean waters - as one possible cause of it, along with nitrogen and phosphorus.

"There are other factors that need to be accounted for," she said. "That's still being researched and trying to be understood."

Mintz pointed out that Sanibel has a fertilizer ordinance for all property owners in the city, while unincorporated Lee County like Captiva has one that applies only to lawn care professionals.

Wessel noted that an island-specific regulation could be something to consider.

"This got passed not as an enforcement activity, but as an educational activity," she said of Sanibel's ordinance.

The panel asked for input on creating a mitigation bank on Captiva instead of Little Pine Island.

"It would make sense to have mitigation here," Mintz said. "Is that something we want to consider?"

Some in attendance agreed, including one official.

"If we do have mitigation, it should be locally on Captiva," panel member Mike Mullins said.

Resident Jack Cunningham voiced concern about runoff water and lack of drainage having an impact on water quality, while Lisa Riordan followed up with a relatable concern - dog feces left behind.

"There needs to be some enforcement of people not picking up after their dogs," she said.

Riordan noted that it appears to be more in the village and may be tied to uninformed tourists.

Lee County Sheriff's Office Lt. Mike Sawicki explained that there are rules requiring people to pick up after dogs, as well as not permitting "deposit of any human or animal waste" on beaches and dunes.

"The problem is you kind of have to be there at the moment it occurs," he said.

"We get them when we can," Sawicki added. "It's the same thing with the leash law."

Resident Jon Rosen brought up an issue not on today's list - land erosion.

Mintz reported that other communities in Florida have hired consultants to do a study of their area in order to determine how best to fortify their community and to offer responses to handling erosion.

"I would like to see us hire someone to do a study," he said.

Others in the audience agreed.

During the workshop, Sherman questioned what to do with fish kill remains.

"Is it my responsibility to pick up the dead fish?" she asked.

Mintz reported that when the same question was raised at the last workshop, the Captiva Erosion Prevention District was contacted, which in turn reached out to Lee County about the problem.

"Lee County will come out and clean up," he said.

In addition, a process is being set up for subcontractors to do it if the county does not have the time.

The next public workshop will be held on March 13 at 10 a.m.

The topic is transportation, traffic, road and parking issues.

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