Storms, aging pipes, bacon grease and baby wipes are all contributing to the deterioration and failure of Florida's sewage infrastructure. The fix will take time and billions of dollars.
More than 900,000 gallons of raw sewage flowed into Sarasota Bay after a violent December storm forced open a city pipe.
Summer rain in Daytona Beach and equipment failure in Jacksonville each prompted more than a quarter-million gallons of human waste to spill from sewers last year.
In DeFuniak Springs, 55,000 gallons of untreated wastewater spewed from a manhole into nearby Bruce Creek, while in Boca Raton, nearly 50,000 gallons gushed out of a pressurized pipe.
The sewage spills are emblematic of failing wastewater systems across Florida, which is grappling with aging infrastructure and no easy solutions to pay for a fix.
During the past decade, deteriorating sewers have released 1.6 billion gallons of wastewater, much of it polluting the state’s estuaries and oceans, according to a GateHouse Media analysis of state environmental data.
More than 370 million gallons of that was completely untreated.
Experts say the sewage has fed the blue-green algae blooms wreaking havoc on Florida estuaries and exacerbated red tide in the Gulf of Mexico. Amid historic growth in Florida, environmentalists fear it will only get worse.
“We are at a point where sewers need to be replaced and have been for some time now,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of Manasota-88, an environmental advocacy organization in Southwest Florida. “Until the local governments make it a priority, we are going to continue seeing these spills.”
An analysis of reported spills shows Florida’s sewers failed nearly 23,000 times over the past 10 years — a clip of more than six sewer spills each day. The systems leaked enough human waste to fill about 2,400 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The top cause for the spills was breakage, often from tree root intrusion and exacerbated by the deterioration of aging lines, nearing 80 years old in some communities. Flooding and power loss from storms also pounded the systems in coastal areas, causing massive amounts of sewage to flow out.
Households contributed by rinsing fats such as bacon grease down the sink and flushing baby wipes, which can clog pipes and force ruptures.
“Aging infrastructure is a problem around the whole nation,” said Mark Wise, deputy director of the Okaloosa County Water and Sewer Department. “We have an aggressive capital improvement plan to replace aging infrastructure. It’s going to take some time to get it done.”
Over the past decade, more than 5.3 million gallons of raw sewage spilled from public sewage systems throughout Okaloosa County, according to state Department of Environmental Protection data.
While that figure pales in comparison to some more-populated counties in central and south Florida, it’s much higher than the numbers for Okaloosa County’s immediate neighbors.
From 2009 through 2018, about 731,000 gallons of untreated sewage spilled from the sewage systems in Santa Rosa County and 1.7 million gallons spewed out in Walton County.
Part of the reason for the different figures is the disparity in populations, Okaloosa County Water and Sewer Department Director Jeff Littrell said.
Okaloosa has about 203,000 residents, while Santa Rosa County has about 175,000 and Walton County has a little more than 68,000.
Littrell and Wise said Okaloosa also has much more sanitary sewer infrastructure than its immediate neighbors to the east and west. Overall, more than 99 percent of the sewage in Okaloosa County and other areas continues to be treated, Wise said.
Many people, however, will only remember system failures, especially big ones.
Over the course of many weeks earlier this year, an estimated 500,000 gallons of raw sewage escaped from an aging, cast iron force main under Gap Creek near Fort Walton Beach.
“I’ve been here for 23 years, and that’s the largest spill we’ve had in my time,” Littrell said.
The spill affected surface water but not drinking water. The cost to replace the 1970s-era faulty force main and clean up the spilled waste totaled about $140,000.
Many utility officials in Florida are trying to extend the life of sewers with patchwork repairs. That’s because it could require hundreds of billions of dollars to bring the state’s older infrastructure up to modern standards, experts estimate.
“It’s really hard to get ahead of it,” said Bill Riebe, utilities director for the city of Sarasota. “It’s a monumental task. ... The pipe is all underground, so it’s out of sight, out of mind. Nobody bothers with utilities until they don’t work.”
When Florida first introduced sewers, it was common for the pipes to be made from baked clay. Cast iron later became the standard and now it’s mostly PVC plastic. But many systems throughout the state are still using those older lines, which leaves them more susceptible to damage.
Human wastewater contains hazardous hydrogen sulfide, created by the human body during food digestion and responsible for the odor from decay. Hydrogen sulfide can be highly corrosive and can eat away at sewer pipes over time.
“We really have a sewer crisis in the state of Florida,” said Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper. “This isn’t going to get any better if we’re not dealing with it comprehensively.”
Some 980 million gallons of wastewater from reported spills have entered Florida waterways during the past decade alone. That includes about 220 million gallons of raw sewage, according to DEP data.
The blue-green algae blooms that have become commonplace in Lake Okeechobee, in turn choking the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, feed directly off the nutrients in the wastewater. And although scientists want to see more research on the impacts to naturally-occurring red tide, most experts agree that human fecal matter can potentially exacerbate the spread.
“If you think about what’s in the wastewater, much of it contains nitrogen and phosphate — two of the driving forces behind the formation and proliferation of algae blooms,” said Jerry Phillips, a former attorney with the Florida DEP. “And when the nutrients meet red tide, it just explodes.”
Aside from age, sewers also take a beating from Florida’s storms. When power goes out during heavy rain, lift stations without a generator can shut down. People are still flushing their toilets, but that water is not pumped into the main lines. Instead, it backs up and overflows at the lift station — usually through the manhole cover.
Rain also finds its way into sewage pipes, overwhelming the systems with more volume than the lines can handle.
Storms even contribute to pollution from reclaimed water — treated wastewater used for things like irrigation — when rain forces the storage tanks to overflow.
Since 2009, rain and power losses produced non-permitted releases totaling nearly 1 billion gallons of wastewater.
“Maintaining a sewage infrastructure is one of the government’s basic requirements,” said Justin Bloom, executive director of the Suncoast Waterkeeper, which litigated St. Petersburg and Gulfport over sewer issues. “What’s happened over the past few decades, the municipalities have let their sewage infrastructure deteriorate.”
Northwest Florida Daily News reporter Tony Judnich contributed to this report.