I-TEAM: Failing septic tanks endanger St. Johns River

Sewage pouring into river can lead to massive algae blooms

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As toxic algae takes over waters across South Florida, the News4Jax I-TEAM has learned that a 10-year-old effort to protect Jacksonville's St. Johns River from similar blooms has fallen short. Failing septic tanks around the city continue to send sewage into the water, feeding the dangerous algae blooms.

At more than 300 miles long and flowing north into the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Johns is the longest river in the state. Many consider the river the jewel of Jacksonville, but at the same time, it faces an environmental epidemic that threatens the waterway's health.

Along Doctors Inlet, the I-TEAM found fishermen casting their nets, as well as an algae bloom so toxic that biologists said it could kill a small animal or make a person who consumes the algae very sick.

"It was highly toxic," said Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper. "In fact, it was 120 times more toxic than safe recreational standards set by the World Health Organization."

Rinaman said she attributes the algae blooms to a number of factors, including over-fertilized yards, industrial pollutants and the more than 20,000 failing septic tanks in Jacksonville.

In 2006, a $700 million agreement, known as The River Accord, set out a series of steps aimed at helping the river, such as eliminating outdated wastewater treatment plants and maximizing reclaimed water. The legislation, signed by then-Mayor John Peyton, set out to replace 21,000 septic tanks with connections to city sewer services. 

However, many of those septic tanks are still failing, and Rinaman is not satisfied with the city's efforts to replace the tanks.

"The city of Jacksonville has been trying to tackle the septic tank problem for a long time, and it's woefully short," she said. "There are thousands negatively impacting our neighborhoods and waterways that need to be dealt with."

The I-TEAM set out to find some of these failing septic tanks and found one off Jammes Road on the city's Westside. Raw sewage was bubbling out -- with human waste mixed with water from a recent rain.

I-TEAM: Residents on push to replace septic tanks

"The septic tank has been opened up, and a lot of people are complaining about it," said Christine Hurley, who noted the tank has been a problem for about a year.  "There's kids running around. There's mosquitoes breeding in it by the thousands."

Hurley lives at an apartment complex several blocks away from the Cedar River, which empties directly into the St. Johns. She said she can smell the sewage in her home, and it makes her concerned about her family's health. The septic tank eventually was repaired.

The signing of The River Accord came on the heels of a local environmental disaster known as "The Green Monster," the name given to an unprecedented, massive toxic algae bloom in the summer of 2005. It engulfed the majority of the St. Johns River, crippling the fishing industry, tourism, recreation and anything that relied on Jacksonville's most precious natural resource.

The plan involved limiting wastewater discharge, upgrading JEA's sewage treatment plants and phasing out the 21,000 septic tanks in several parts of the city (see map below). 

As for JEA's role, the utility went above and beyond its original goals, shutting down six wastewater treatment plants and upgrading five others, with the objective of reclaiming more water and dumping less nitrogen into the river. The plants treat millions of gallons of wastewater every day, using a biological treatment process, which makes the water safe to pump back into the St. Johns.

The city of Jacksonville did successfully update its master stormwater management plan, creating more retention ponds to handle stormwater runoff. The city also began tracking the amount of sediment going into the river. But of the 21,000 failing septic tanks identified in the plan, as of right now, the city has only phased out about 1,000.

City Council President Lori Boyer said that in 2006, when The River Accord was signed, there was economic optimism but added that the 2008 recession led to limited government spending. The $200 million that the state of Florida had committed over 10 years wasn't appropriated to the city of Jacksonville. Citing economic instability, state and local lawmakers voted to spend that money on other projects.

When asked who is to blame for the city's shortcomings in fixing septic tanks, Boyer said if anyone was to blame, she would blame the economy.

"Maybe I can say that the choices that have been made in Jacksonville, that are made by the voters and by the elected officials, have been that we wanted to keep our taxes low, and our citizens wanted to keep more of their money for themselves," Boyer said. 

Boyer said the city is still trying to pick up where it left off. Recently, the city council approved spending $30 million to expand city sewer services to 10 neighborhoods (see map), which pose the greatest risk to the St. Johns River's health. They are the neighborhoods that have tributaries closest to the river, where a septic tank could pose the greatest environmental threat, if it were to fail.

However, in some of the neighborhoods, some families are hesitant to switch from septic tank to city sewer, in fear of connection fees and higher monthly bills.

Ron Smith has a septic tank at his Northside home and relies on well water from the aquifer. He said he worries that switching to city sewer service would create a financial strain.

"We'd have some high water bills, and I can't afford that. I've retired," Smith said. 

Smith said city workers were recently at his home, inspecting his septic tank, and added his neighbors are torn over the benefits and the drawbacks of a potential change.

Boyer said it's not just homeowners who would benefit from city sewer connections, saying business districts in these communities would also benefit from the new service.

"If you don't have water and sewer lines, and you're operating on individual wells and septic tanks, it's much more difficult to get restaurants and grocery stores and manufacturing businesses, anything like that, that create job opportunities, to locate in those areas," Boyer said. 

Boyer, a strong proponent of a healthy St. Johns River, said the city and JEA will be communicating with residents in the targeted neighborhoods over the next few months, through mailings and informational meetings. 

The average cost to hook up to city sewer service is anywhere from $4,000 to $11,000, but under recently-passed legislation, that connection fee is waived. However, connected residents will be responsible for their monthly water bill. Before construction can begin, 70 percent of a neighborhood must agree to switch to city sewer service. A neighborhood that does not agree to the switch will lose its eligibility for the next five years.  The city expects to phase out 1,150 septic tanks through its newest legislation.

City officials estimated that replacing all 20,000 failing septic tanks throughout the city would cost $700 million.

They hope that now that progress is being made in tackling the city's pension debt, more money will be able to be put aside each year to address the health of the St. Johns River.

Areas targeted for septic tank replacement: Red areas first designated in 2006, green areas designate 2016 priorities

Agencies, including the St. Johns River Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, test area waterways for algae. The St. Johns Riverkeeper aims to get citizens involved in the process with its own algal bloom sampling team.

WATCH: St. Johns Riverkeeper algae class

The I-TEAM recently attended the Riverkeeper’s Know Your Green class, held at Black Creek Outfitters on the Southside. Justina Dacey, with the St. Johns Riverkeeper, explained that the class educates citizens on what an algae bloom is and how they can help determine the toxicity level of the bloom.

"These algae blooms do produce toxins that can be harmful to human health and to pets, if your dog swims in the river, as well as the economy, fisherman, kayak outfitters,” Dacey said. “They'll be affected as well when you can't recreate on the river."

Dacey said their Know Your Green effort is a "citizen science project" aimed at getting people engaged in the issues surrounding the river and the algae blooms.

"They go out and use special bottles we provide them. They record, do observations and photographs," Dacey said. 

Dacey added that weather can play a role in when algae blooms happen.

"Typically, when we have warmer months, in the summer months, lots of rains, lots of nutrients pulsing into the river, the summer months is when we see the most algae blooms," she said.

Algae samples taken in 2016:

About the Authors:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.