Well, roll me in corn flour and call me dinner ... Sewall's Point, one of the wealthiest towns in Florida -- the one at the epicenter of blue-green algae on the Treasure Coast -- this week turned down septic-to-sewer conversion.
That's what I said, decided AGAINST it.
Residents at Monday's meeting weren't convinced they're part of the problem.
Can you believe it?
Sewall's Point, population 1,996, where every property on this pencil-thin, manicured Martin County peninsula is feet away from either the Indian River or the St. Lucie River.
The town where, in 2013 and 2016, residents were wringing their hands like Uriah Heep and screaming bloody murder in public meetings because the water was so polluted they couldn't touch it.
It's not as if these folks don't know Florida's got a big nutrient loading problem in its rivers and estuaries, or that too much phosphorous and nitrogen can trigger algal blooms that choke the oxygen right out the water and cause incalculable damage to riverine ecosystems.
And it's not as if they didn't get the message about the presence of fecal matter in the water. It's certainly made local, state and national news. Runoff -- agricultural and urban -- plus sewage top the list of culprits. And sewage, while a problem in virtually all waters, is particularly an acute problem in the Indian River lagoon.
Every year more than 4.4 million pounds of nitrogen from upwards of 600,000 septic tanks leaching into tidal creeks and canals wind up in the 156-mile-long Indian River Lagoon -- of which Sewall's Point is part.
"Most of us have realized this is a problem," Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute's Brian Lapointe, told TCPalm in 2015. "Having this density of septic tanks in this poor soil condition and high water tables is a recipe for disaster, and that's exactly what we're seeing play out."
Have another look at the video Lapointe made last year with PBS. It's shown on this page.
Some residents at Monday's town meeting -- granted, not all of them but apparently the majority -- had forgotten about the umpteen river samples Lapointe has taken over the last few years confirming the deteriorating quality of their waters and the presence of human waste. Instead of jumping at the county's outline for an $11.6 million septic-to-sewer conversion, they argued that forcing residents to convert to sewer was a violation of private property rights -- that as long as septic tanks are legal, they shouldn't be forced to pay for something else.
If it sounds to you like an excuse, you're forgiven.
Under the proposal, the county would have ponied up $1 million of the capital cost. And each property on a septic tank would have been responsible for $695 annually, inclusive of interest and other fees, over a 20-year period, payable through their property taxes.
The town also left $500,000 on the table, money the state would have given it to extend the sewer line at least partially. OK, the commission is going to meet again on this Aug. 22. But I wouldn't hold out too much hope if I were you.
According to a story in TcPalm, "Some opponents said, among other things, that septic tanks are not polluting the St. Lucie River and Indian River lagoon to an extent that would cause algae blooms. Opponents also said that if the sewer line is extended, property owners would be mandated to hook up to the mainline sewer."
But wait a minute. Septic tanks are leaking into the rivers. Fecal coliform, the source of nitrogen, contributes to a deterioration of water quality. Period. That's just how it is.
Florida's water bodies are in crisis. Floridians do what they can, what is in their power, to right the ship. In the end, that's all they can do.
Look at what's happened in the interest of improving the ecosystem just around Lake Okeechobee. The state is dealing with the problem positively, in a two-pronged attack: water quantity (storage) and water quality (cleaning):
- The South Florida Water Management District has the C-44 and C-43 projects under way, expanding reservoirs to capture and store more water to the east and the west of the big lake.
- The Central Florida cattle industry is all but gone because of the high levels of nutrients they were thought to be contributing in the Kissimmee River basin. Much of this farmland is now used for citrus, which adds far fewer nutrients.
- Cities like Clewiston, Pahokee, and Belle Glade have all converted from septic to sewer.
- Farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area are required under the 1994 Everglades Forever Act to reduce phosphorus annually. They have reduced it by an annual average of 55 percent, far exceeding the 25 percent required by law.
- Sugarcane farmers have given up more than 120,000 acres of farmland for water storage and treatment projects.
People doing what's in their power to do.
Martin County is making an effort to extend sewer lines and expand its system to communities within its bounds. But what is Sewall's Point doing? Now we know the answer.
Here are people whose waterfront property -- median value $714,000 -- is increasing in value. In fact, Sewalls Point home values have gone up 10.8 percent over the past year, algae or no algae, and Zillow predicts they will rise 2.5 percent within the next year. Sewall's Pointers should be setting an example for other Martin residents who are less privileged yet choose to do the right thing for the waterways and the Florida environment they love.
LaPointe says this about the relationship between septic tanks and algae: “We have two major problems, that discharge from the lake bringing a lot of fresh water into the system and then all the septic tanks that are also draining into the system with fecal coliform bacteria. And it really is like the perfect storm coming together, creating a big, big problem in this area.”
Septic-to-sewer conversion an affront to private property rights? Please. It's an excuse to hug a status quo that is destroying a vital component of our state.
This town between bridges just east of Stuart had an opportunity to do the right thing, and they blew it. Next time the blue goo settles along their shoreline, they'd best lay low and stay quiet as mice. In my book anyway, they don't get to complain.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith