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Panel to conduct further research to supplement wastewater study

By Staff | Sep 19, 2018

Jay Brown

After reviewing the final wastewater study at its meeting, the Captiva Community Panel decided to conduct its own additional research into areas of the study that it feels still lacks pertinent information.

Panel Member Jay Brown, chair for the panel’s Wastewater Committee, presented the findings of the finalized Captiva Island Wastewater Alternative Study at the Sept. 11 meeting. The study, completed by TKW Consulting Engineers on behalf of Lee County and the panel, had some updates from the draft.

“I’m disappointed to tell everybody that there is not a lot of change in the final draft versus the draft that I had been previously working with,” Brown said.

At last month’s meeting, the panel came up with a list of items for TKW and county staffers that it believed needed further explanation and clarification based on the draft presented at the time. Brown relayed the concerns to TKW and the county in the hopes the extra information would be included.

“There were some changes made, but I don’t think the amount of change in there (final study) was highly significant versus what I was hoping to see,” he said.

Some areas of concern included how the costs of implementing a central sewer system – if island property owners chose to do so in the end – were reported, the environmental benefits versus risks of septic systems compared to a central sewer system, and the impact of the rising sea level on septics.

Brown noted that the study provides a lot of information and is a valuable contribution, but the extra input would have provided a clearer picture to make a decision on the island’s wastewater strategy.

“I don’t think we have everything in that report for the community right now to make an informed judgement,” he said. “I think we need to be doing some additional work before we ask the community to start expressing views on what’s the best way to go.”

Brown shared with the panel his written summary of the study. He recommended posting the final study and summary online and having the committee itself attempt to research the extra information.

In November, TKW will present its study to the community and respond to public feedback.

“I think our next steps are to carry on with TKW presenting its report to the public in mid- to late November,” he said. “I think that I spend another two or three months, let’s say, trying to pull additional information together.”

Vice President Mike Borris agreed that the study leaves “a lot of things open,” but added that it contains a lot of useful information too. He applauded the work done by TKW and county staffers.

“If people will take the time to study it – and I’m taking about our constituents – that’s really a prerequisite before we go any further,” Borris said.

He also voiced support for Brown’s summary.

“Jay’s summary is totally appropriate. I agree that that’s what we should put forward,” Borris said. “But we should encourage people to study the total report, even though its arduous, because I think that’s how you’re going to learn what we’re dealing with.”

Panel Member Mike Lanigan noted that the panel’s duty is to inform the community.

“And let them make the best decision,” he said.

Panel Member Dave Jensen questioned if the final report indicates what negative effects, if any, the rising sea level will have on conventional septic systems, the more advanced performance-based septic systems and a central sewer system.

“It’s clear in the TKW report that a central sewer system would be much more defensible in conditions of sea level rise than individual septics,” Brown said. “Performance-based systems are going to have the same issues with sea level rise as conventional septic systems.”

Panel Member Rene Miville also shared his thoughts.

“I’m personally thinking about the fact that if my kids have my property 25 years from now and our performance system is useless because the water table is up a half a foot,” he said. “There are multiple counties around the country that have issues with their septic fields because the water is rising and it’s not working, so that’s a reality.”

“I’m thinking I’m screwed if I don’t get a central sewer system in 20 years,” Miville added.

The panel voted unanimously in support of the Brown’s recommendations.

In the coming months, he and the committee will try to gather more information on:

n The environmental consequences of maintaining Captiva’s current wastewater situation – a mix of conventional and performance-based septic systems, with four wastewater treatment plants serving the remaining areas. Brown hopes to tap the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and James Evans, director of the Sanibel Natural Resources Department, as resources.

“Just to see if we can develop more of an environmental understanding than what’s in the TKW report,” he said.

n The impact of the sea level rise on the operation of septic tanks.

“Other than citing it as a threat that’s out there, they don’t go beyond that,” Brown said, asking what impact a one-foot rise would have on the island’s existing systems. “I think we ought to do some more work to better understand the threat – try to get some more bones on it.”

n The cost breakdown for implementing and maintaining a central sewer system.

“The TKW report doesn’t translate that into, ‘What does it cost me, the property owner, to do that?'” he said.

The study estimates that the capital cost to establish the system is about $15.7 million. Brown explained that he was able to come to an estimated per property figure by totaling the one-time costs for the system, financed over 20 years at 3.5 percent, and then splitting it among the properties.

He calculated that each property owner would pay $3,522 per year for 20 years – $2,744 for the system plus $778 for the annual processing fee – then just the annual processing fee after that.

“You’re looking at something like, all in, $3,500 a year for 20 years. It’s a big number,” Brown said, adding that it why the extra information on the environmental and sea level rise elements are important. “The community has to judge, ‘Do we want to take on those kind of costs for those kind of benefits?'”

n If outside funding sources are available so property owners do not have to bear the full cost.

n The ability to set up a regulatory regime for the island’s existing septic systems.

“Lee County says it’s not possible to have such a regulatory regime,” he said. “We’ve done some research and we’ve found examples of several other counties that do, in fact, have regulatory regimes for conventional septic systems, so that needs to be pursued further.”

Ken Gooderham, the panel’s administrator, explained that they contacted the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee on regulatory regimes and learned Charlotte and Lake counties have them.

“They all have set up regulatory regimes for their septic systems for very specific areas, and they tended to be tied to some sort of a permit or protected land,” he told the panel.

For example, Charlotte’s regime was set up based on a condition tied to a Florida Department of Environmental Protection permit when a lock was taken out. It lists the properties by address that fall under the regulations and, in setting it up, the county has the ability to add to the list in the future.

In Lake, the regime is tied to a protected area called the Green Swamp.

“Every five years, everything goes out (of the septic tank) and they inspect the tank to make sure that it’s functioning properly,” Gooderham said, emphasizing that it is not a monitoring program. “They inspect them for cracks. They use contractors to go out and check things and it’s run through the (local) Department of Health.”

He noted that a regime is not going to reduce nutrients or solve the sea level rise, but it is a possible method for the panel to address and inspect the non-permitted septics identified by TKW’s study.

“The initial research is there’s a way to do it,” Gooderham said.

He explained that if the panel is interested, the next steps would be to confirm the information with those counties and reach out to the Lee County DOH to see if it would open to getting involved.

Gooderham added that the red tide and blue-green algae, along with Basin Management Action Plans implemented by the Florida DEP to address nutrient loads, could serve as the possible “triggers.”

“We want to regulate because we want to protect the nearshore waters, which include an aquatic preserve and the Gulf,” he said of the panel’s reason. “I think the triggering events are within reach.”


– President David Mintz provided an update on the Captiva Drive improvements. With the island utilities having an idea of what can be moved and what needs to be done, Lee County’s Department of Transportation now wants the panel to move forward with an engineering project for the roadway.

“We need to, basically, engineer the sidewalk as we want to see it,” he said.

The county DOT recommended some engineering firms, but Mintz’s wants to take a pause.

“I’m uncomfortable at this point because I think our plan is fairly simple,” he said, adding that he would like to meet with staffers first to define the scope and cost of the engineering study. “I still have hopes that we can figure out a way, other than the community, to pay for this engineering piece.”

“I don’t know why we need a complex engineering design here,” Mintz said.