The Biscayne Times

Jun 01st
Toilet Troubles Ahead PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
April 2019

A rising tide lifts all septic tanks

Ibigstock-Toilet-Paper-1953474’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, Villagers in Miami Shores, Biscayne Park, and El Portal are just so completely full of it! But being fair-minded, I will add that they’re no more so than any other human on this little planetary blue ball we collectively inhabit.

Your average villager will produce about 320 pounds of fecal matter every year, equating to 24,320 pounds in an average lifetime, or the weight of about three full-grown hippos. Fun facts that only loyal BT readers garner!

Delving deeper into the topic of doo-doo (and, really, why not?), we villagers deposit our excrement into septic tanks that are typically buried in our backyard or side yards. Our three villages are unique in that we’re primarily not connected to Miami-Dade’s centralized sewer system. Wastewater from your kitchen, bath, and toilets is piped into a septic tank, and the liquid runoff from that tank is treated by (key word) unsaturated soil, the septic system’s drainfield. About every other year, our septic tanks are professionally pumped and drained.

It all works fine and dandy for the blissful villager until we confront the inconvenient truth that climate change and sea level rise will now affect our septic tanks. Since 1994 sea levels have risen four inches and are expected to rise another two to six inches by 2030. Hey, no problem, you’re thinking. I’m way inland, so no sweat, right? Unfortunately, since south Florida rests on permeable limestone, as seas rise, so does the water table. Water will creep right up through the ground beneath our very feet.

Now remember that septic tank filled with your waste and filth? As the water table creeps upward, our septic systems are destined to fail. And it goes way beyond just your house. Failing septic systems pose grave hazards to the broader public health because they contaminate our freshwater aquifer.

Again, for the liquid runoff from the septic tank to be “treated” in removing its associated pollutants, a healthy volume and depth of unsaturated soil must exist below the drainfield. As the groundwater level rises and the soil becomes increasingly saturated, the natural treatment process doesn’t occur and runoff may flow right back into the septic tank, backing it up. And with too much water, your self-contained septic tank will begin to “float,” popping right out of the ground.

Contaminated runoff that interacts with saturated soil will promote disease-causing pathogens. A November report, “Septic Systems Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise,” co-authored by Samir Elmer of the Florida Department of Health, notes that “shigellosis, salmonella, hepatitis A, viral gastroenteritis, and other human diseases are shed in human waste in extremely high numbers.” The report adds that at the mouth of the Little River canal (which abuts El Portal to the south), there are already measurements of fecal enterococci that pose potential risks to public health.

The scale of this challenge is enormous for our tiny three villages. According to the county report, Biscayne Park has 854 parcels with septic systems, of which 672 will be vulnerable to periodic compromise by 2030. El Portal’s 754 parcels have 462 vulnerable, and of the 3123 parcels in Miami Shores, 864 are vulnerable. This is an issue that, over time, will affect virtually every Tri-Village homeowner.

The obvious solution would be to convert all three villages from septic to sewer. But for those of you thinking that’s a simple matter, just remember the septic-to-sewer project still under way in downtown Miami Shores. That’s just one street that has been under construction for years. Now envision every single road or alleyway in the villages being trenched, sewer lines installed, then connected to individual houses, and existing septic tanks abandoned.

In June, Miami Shores commissioned the “Environmental Vulnerability Study” by Coastal Risk Consulting, which looked at this very issue. The capital improvements needed, from planning to septic-to-sewer-conversion to anti-flooding measures, tallied a whopping $85.45 million. And zooming out, as the Miami Herald noted January 10 (“Miami-Dade’s Septic Tanks Are Already Failing Due to Sea Rise”), it’s a $3 billion problem countywide.

Some neighborhoods don’t have the luxury of time; the consultants pointed to Miami Shores Estates (located behind what was once Kmart) with a window of about four years before its septic systems become at risk of failing.

Even if you value your green credentials, sewers are by no means green. Every flush of the toilet results in the pollution of two to five gallons of clean, potable water. Linking to the county sewers means we’re adding to the 300 million gallons a day of water being pumped to one of the county’s three wastewater treatment plans. And much of that partially treated human waste is dumped into deep ocean waters far from land. So let’s ask ourselves, when we throw something away, what does “away” mean?

The issues include: too much water creeping underneath us; too many pollutants mixing with groundwater, creating a toxic sludge; the depletion of healthy topsoil; and solutions that are highly disruptive, expensive, and not environmentally friendly in the long term.

And here comes a radical recommendation to take a step backward to move forward. Global movers and shakers as prominent as Bill Gates have concluded that in order to help the health and wellness of millions in the developing world, who have neither the financial nor practical means to build billion-dollar sewer systems, there is a pressing need to develop a modern-world version of a sanitary waterless toilet.

The Gates Foundation has invested in researching the Nano Membrane Toilet, a self-contained, pathogen-killing, odorless toilet that can exist miles away from the nearest sewer pipe.

Until then, there’s the modern latrine. Latrines today can be as comfortable, as odorless, as sanitary (with proper care) as today’s water-wasting toilet. Throw in an electrically powered composting function, and your waterless latrine will transform your excrement into the nutrient-rich topsoil we increasingly need. That’s right, city slickers, doodie over time turns to wholesome dirt. Remove the human waste from the equation, and our septic tanks can be reserved for kitchen and laundry use, removing the risk of creating a toxic, sludgy, smelly mess, and the resulting public health crisis.

Now, I can sense the eye rolls and demands for an immediate sobriety test. But a binary choice will confront us over the next few decades. There will be highly expensive, disruptive mainstream options that link us to the madness of the municipal wastewater treatment system against lower-tech, less-expensive, greener, off-grid alternatives. However wacky some of the out-of-the-box solutions may seem today, tomorrow they may seem mainstream.

And that’s no sh--t.


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