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Captiva Community Panel committee provides update on wastewater study

By Staff | Jan 17, 2018

The agenda for the Captiva Island Wastewater Alternative Study is in the hands of Lee County officials, with a workshop with the Lee County Commission tentatively to be set up in the coming months.

At the Jan. 9 meeting of the Captiva Community Panel, the Wastewater Committee provided an update on its progress for reviewing and evaluating alternative long-term wastewater strategies for the island. Jay Brown, chair of the committee, reported that the agenda is on Assistant Lee County Manager Doug Meurer’s desk. The committee is shooting for a March or April workshop with county commissioners.

The county has hired Fort Myers-based TKW Consulting Engineers to conduct the study.

“They’re developing a long-term study for us,” Brown said.

The committee has met with TKW twice and anticipates periodical updates from the firm.

The study is expected to be completed in late spring.

Brown noted that the results will be presented to the community through public meetings.

“There’s a lot of different ways to go. What we’re trying to do now is get all the facts together,” he said of Captiva’s wastewater issue. “Based on what we learn, then we’ll chart the path forward from there.”

“It may come out that there is a clear-cut best alternative,” Brown added.

The majority of Captiva homes use unregulated conventional septic systems for wastewater disposal and it is up to the property owners to properly maintain their septic system. Some, however, use newer performance-based systems, which require annual inspection and maintenance regulated by the Lee County Department of Health.

In addition, South Seas Island Resort is served by a sewer system and central treatment facility operated by the Florida Government Utility Authority. The ‘Tween Waters Inn Island Resort, Sunset Captiva and Captiva Shores own and operate their own package wastewater treatment facilities.

“As part of the study, they (TKW) are looking at those package plants,” he said.

In 2015, the Captiva Community Panel formed the committee as a response to community requests. The move also was encouraged by the city of Sanibel as city officials have long been concerned about potential environmental risks to Sanibel arising from Captiva’s reliance on conventional septic tanks.

Sanibel currently provides central sewer service to nearly all of its businesses and residents.

During a meeting with Sanibel officials, the committee learned that the city may have unused treatment capacity and would be willing to work with Captiva to develop a central sewer solution for the island.

Panel member Dave Jensen praised the city’s approach to the issue at the meeting.

“Sanibel, I think, is a leader in the environmental thing,” he said of the potential local impact of septic systems. “Maybe we don’t know serious we’re contributing to it, but we’re contributing something.”

In 2011, a Captiva water quality study conducted by the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation compared coastal water samples from areas adjacent to South Seas – served by FGUA’s central sewer – to areas outside of South Seas, served by septics. No significant difference was found in the bacteria levels. There was, however, a significant elevation of nitrogen content from areas served by septics.

Elevated nitrogen supports the growth of algae and may be associated with red tide.

Panel member Antje Benjamin voiced support for the study at the meeting.

“We have a problem,” she said of the Captiva’s current wastewater situation. “But, do we leave it the way it is or is there an alternative that is better?”

Brown explained that three possible long-term alternatives have been identified:

  • Do nothing and maintain the status quo. While conventional septic systems are not best practice for Captiva’s geological conditions and may contribute to elevated nitrogen levels in coastal waters, there is no day-to-day evidence of bacterial pollution or significant, observable environmental impact.
  • Retain septic systems as the principal wastewater strategy, but determine methods to improve efficacy and reduce environmental risk. The efforts might include long-term conversion to performance-based systems, the establishment of a regulatory regime to ensure proper septic system operation and such.
  • Develop the best plan to create a central sewer system and present it to the voting community for approval. It might include expanding the capacity at the FGUA facility or utilizing Sanibel’s capacity.

“There would be some caveats to looking at the expansion of FGUA,” Brown said.

FGCU has estimated that it would cost about $30 million for the expansion and the installation of a central sewer line to all of Captiva. The figure does not include the connection cost for individual properties to the line nor does it include the disruption costs to the community during the transition.

He noted that facility is also surrounded by mangroves, which would require permits.

Brown explained that the committee had gathered lots of information and data, but was uncomfortable with offering a recommendation to the panel and the community with unanswered specifics, such as:

  • The costs for maintaining and operating a central sewer system
  • The long-term environmental risks with conventional septic systems
  • How to implement a regulatory regime if keeping septic systems

Hence, Lee County was brought on board, agreeing to assist with a long-term study.

Brown noted that the county will not provide any financial support if the community decides on a central sewer system. It will, however, help Captiva create a tax unit to fund the construction.

The move would require a majority vote from the impacted property owners.

Brown also addressed the concern of density and development as a connected issue.

“We have a lot of measures in place now to control density,” he said, adding that as long as the measures are enforced, density should not be an issue.

Panel member David Mintz pointed out the group’s efforts to strengthen the existing zoning and codes through updating and amending the Captiva Plan and Captiva Code, keeping the control on-island.

For more information on the study, visit www.captivacommunitypanel.com.

The next meeting of the Captiva Community Panel is Feb. 13 at 9 a.m. at South Seas Island Resort, at 5400 Plantation Road, Captiva.