Septic tanks have been linked to water pollution in springs, lakes and coastal waters throughout the state.
So it is not good news that Hillsborough County has more than 120,000 septic systems, and they continue to be permitted at a fairly rapid rate — more than 12,000 since 2000, as The Tribune’s Mike Salinero found.
Many of these systems, to be sure, do no harm, and it would be inordinately costly — for both the county and homeowners — to covert the bulk of them to the county’s wastewater system.
Still, it is disappointing the county does not have a more aggressive policy to cut down on the number of septic tanks, especially in areas where they may pose a threat to surface and groundwater.
This is a daunting issue that will require planning, patience and revenue. But simply allowing the continued proliferation of tanks that can pose a serious pollution threat to ground and surface water is not good public policy.
The Florida Department of Health is responsible for permitting septic tanks. Its current requirements are far better than the days when there were scant restrictions on the tanks and drain fields, but guidelines allow the tanks only 75 feet from surface water or drinking water wells.
Studies have shown that is not always enough.
As Eric Draper, president of Florida Audubon, says, the septic tanks do nothing to filter out nutrients, the leading cause of water pollution.
Consider Sarasota Bay, where studies indicated septic tanks were polluting the water. Local officials began working to replace trouble spots and were able to obtain some federal funds.
The county should consider a similar strategy to begin replacing septic tanks near water bodies.
Many people on septic, understandably, don’t want to hook up to the county system even if it’s available because the county charges a $5,000 capacity fee and the resident can expect about a $65 monthly water-wastewater bill.
Developers also resist the costs of hooking up to the county system, when septic tanks offer a cheap alternative.
But septic systems also can be costly to maintain and operate ineffectively. And there are serious costs, over time, of allowing our water sources and water bodies to become tainted.
The issue defies easy remedy, but the County Commission should develop a strategy for making septic tanks — over time — less common and less necessary.