NAVARRE – Eglin Air Force Base and Santa Rosa County leaders finally hammered out a lease agreement for the Navarre Beach, Holley-Navarre and South Santa Rosa Utilities to pipe their treated wastewater to 200 acres located on base property, instead of into the Santa Rosa Sound.

The two parties began talks in 2001. Now, only the signatures of the Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett and Santa Rosa County Chairman Sam Parker are needed to advance the project that would improve the health and quality of the Sound.

It’s one more step in the nearly three-decade pursuit to remove treated wastewater from the Sound. County officials first considered other alternatives in the late 1990s before settling on the estimated $20 million-$30 million project to pipe Navarre Beach facility effluent to Eglin.

County Engineer Roger Blaylock said finalizing the lease is an important step in the process to complete the environmental project.

“I don’t think it will take another 20 years,” Blaylock said.

Eglin plans to charge the Santa Rosa County Regional Reuse System $210,000 for the 25-year lease that contains an option for a five-year renewal. The 200 acres lies just north of Navarre and the East River and west of State Road 87.

“We’re really excited about this opportunity to develop a very long-term, permanent reuse solution,” said Mike Kennedy, Holley-Navarre Water System board president.

Dave Piech, who represents the Navarre area as the District 4 commissioner, praised county officials for sticking with the project.

“It has gone through a very rigorous environmental process and this is not hurting anything on Eglin,” Piech said.

Several more steps exist once the Eglin lease is signed, such as finding money to build the rapid infiltration basin systems, or RIBS, a simple and economical wastewater treatment process used for more than 100 years. More than 350 RIBS operate in the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports.

Besides that, contractors must build a more than nine-mile pipeline from Navarre Beach to the Eglin wastewater treatment site. County officials have analyzed 36 different routes.

Federal, state and local funding sources are being researched to pay for the major project.

The five-member Santa Rosa County Commission already applied for some RESTORE Act funds associated with penalties paid by BP for the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. The Navarre Beach Wastewater Treatment Facility would receive part of nearly $12.7 million slated for Santa Rosa Water Quality Improvement.

Meanwhile, county officials plan to do a utility rate study to possibly raise revenues from Navarre Beach ratepayers. In addition, the pipeline requires obtaining more environmental permits to cross the Sound.

Fortunately, Blaylock said the county already gained a hard-earned environmental permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. It also successfully went through the Eglin Encroachment Committee approval process to use the Air Force land. Additionally, DEP recently renewed the Navarre Beach utility’s five-year permit to discharge effluent into the Sound.

“By meeting current effluent standards, we don’t have to do the project tomorrow,” Blaylock said. “We have time to do all the appropriate things we have to do and that just makes it a different project environment than being under a (state-mandated) consent order.”

The DEP permit allows the Navarre Beach plant to dispose up to 900,000 gallons of treated wastewater a day into the Santa Rosa Sound. The facility discharges on average about 320,000 gallons per day. Across Florida 173 utilities still discharge effluent into waterways, DEP reported.

Although the Navarre Beach utility meets state and federal effluent standards, some Santa Rosa environmentalists continue to claim household cleaners, pesticides and other pollutants pass through facility without undergoing treatment.

Santa Rosa Sound, a 42.4-square-mile lagoon that connects Choctawhatchee and Pensacola bays, has experienced habitat loss primarily because of development. Additionally, more than 29 documented health advisory warnings have occurred since 2003 near Navarre Park.

The Eglin property is in an ideal spot for a rapid infiltration basin system, which relies on the soil ecosystem to treat wastewater. The Eglin site sits north of East River and northeast of East Bay. The surface waters minimize any impact effluent can have on groundwater quality.

“(RIBS) is very effective, not only for filtration, but after it’s treated it recharges the aquifer,” Blaylock said. “It serves a dual purpose.”