Sewage: out of sight and mind…until it’s not

 
Florida's beaches are monitored by County Health Departments and posted if bacterial contamination is found.

When the toilet flushes, we never expect to see it again. And we all know what I mean by “it.” Yet raw sewage is bubbling up in the streets from failing infrastructure in many Florida communities, putting public health and the environment at risk.

Raw sewage can contain various disease-causing organisms, including viruses, bacteria, and parasites—many of which can cause serious illness and even death in humans. When raw sewage reaches waterways it contaminates shellfish, adds nutrients to waterways that already have too many nutrients, and puts swimmers and others enjoying the water at-risk of illness.

Across the Florida panhandle coast where I do much of my work, failing sewage infrastructure is causing huge problems for people and the environment. We’re identifying the worst of these polluting systems and working to get them cleaned-up as quickly as possible. We do that as we do with all of our campaigns, which is to work with residents, organizations, and agencies in the affected communities to bring these cases to the decisionmakers who can take action.     

Utilities that operate these sewage systems often complain that they can’t afford to upgrade their infrastructure. We meet with the utilities to offer ideas and support for additional funding sources, and more equitable ways of charging ratepayers for the true costs of the infrastructure that supports them.  

For example, our work has found that utilities are not “doing the math” on what it really costs to provide sewer service to different areas and types of land development. Studies from across the nation have long shown that it costs more for local governments and utilities to provide services to new low-density development at the edge of urban areas. That’s because these areas often require long runs of piping yet serve relatively few people.  

In one famous study in Tallahassee, FL, researchers found that the actual cost of providing sewer services in the wealthy northeast part of town where large homes were being built was more than twice as much as the cost of providing sewer in the older downtown areas.  Yet the older neighborhoods—where residents had much lower incomes—paid the same sewer connection fees as those uptown, resulting in a subsidy to the wealthier neighborhoods of about $5000 per sewer connection. So as utilities look to be fund improvements, we are asking them to look at the true costs of the services they provide.  

We’re also demanding that utilities harden their infrastructure against the heavy rains of storms and hurricanes. Heavy rainfall events have become more common in recent decades and are predicted to increase due to climate change—that according to the National Climate Assessment—a report by more than 300 Federal experts and the National Academy of Sciences.

As we push State environmental agencies, utilities, and local governments to fix failing sewer systems, there are carrots and there are sticks. We keep both at-the-ready in our toolbox of solutions.

GRN is happy to give credit where due and to provide advice on fixing deficient systems. We also apply the community pressure sometimes needed to get action, and that includes litigation. Raw sewage in our streets and waterways is unacceptable, and so the stick is ready if needed.

 

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