Florida’s sewage infrastructure woes come gushing to the surface with Irma

Population growth and rising sea levels create unpleasant mix.

Firefighters check on a resident of Bonita Springs, Florida, who returned to check on the damage to her flooded home in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on September 11, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Firefighters check on a resident of Bonita Springs, Florida, who returned to check on the damage to her flooded home in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on September 11, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Deferred maintenance on sewage treatment systems in Florida could mean parts of the state will find Hurricane Irma floodwaters filled with sewage waste.

As Irma gradually leaves the state, officials could still find sewage treatment plants, already taxed by rapid population growth, overrun by the storm’s heavy rains and flooding from storm surge. Municipal wastewater infrastructure across the state is old and in disrepair, while residential underground septic tanks often flood during storms and high tides.

“The prospect of poop-laden water pooling around in the streets of Miami is scary enough, yet it’s just a symptom of a much bigger problem that plagues hurricane-prone Florida,” Quartz staff writer Ana Campoy reported Saturday. “Rising sea levels are upending its ability to deal with floodwater — and both sea levels and flood-inducing storms will get worse with climate change.

The city of Delray Beach, on the east coast of Florida, told residents Sunday the city’s water is safe to drink but not to use it for any other reason. The city is worried about sewage backups after 70 percent of the city’s sewage pumping stations lost power. Officials in Orange County, Florida, warned residents to wash their hands with soap and water that has been boiled after handling articles contaminated by floodwater or sewage.


Authorities alerted residents in Hialeah — located near Miami — Sunday that they would be experiencing issues with water and sewage due to Hurricane Irma. Water and sewer services on St. Simons Island, in southeast Georgia near the Florida border, were shut down Sunday in preparation for the storm. After Hurricane Matthew last year, sewage spills occurred as residents on the island kept flushing in areas where the water and sewer department was not operating pumps to move wastewater down the line.

Climate change is causing more intense rain storms and rising sea levels that are making coastal septic systems less effective. For a septic tank to work properly, the liquid portion of the waste needs room to slowly filter down into the ground. But when groundwater levels go up, they push the waste back up, sometimes resulting in the sewage waste flooding into homes and streets.

In South Florida, porous soil means that rising sea levels and heavy rains can push groundwater level upwards. Florida homes in low-lying areas that treat their wastewater with septic tanks will likely need to replace their tanks with systems that can handle the rising groundwater levels, according to experts.

Five years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency sued Miami-Dade County in South Florida for violating various water pollution laws. The county responded by reducing the volume of spilled sewage by 55 percent, or roughly 1.5 million gallons, according to its 2016 annual report to the EPA.

Due to proposed budget cuts by the Trump administration, Florida could lose up to $600 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that helps keep beaches waste-free, cleans up pollution from old chemical spills, and tracks leaks in thousands of underground storage tanks.


“Florida has the second highest number of people in the country — more than 7.5 million — served by water systems with health-based Safe Drinking Water Act violations,” the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) said in a new report on the state of Florida’s environment and public health. “And the Trump administration’s proposed budget would slash nearly every EPA program that supports clean water in Florida, exposing Floridians and visitors to dangerous toxic substances and threatening its $17.9 billion tourist economy, along with the $7.6 billion worth of saltwater and $1.7 billion freshwater fishing in the state.”

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts also would eliminate the EPA’s South Florida Geographic Initiative, which for 25 years has made Florida’s water cleaner by replacing 25,000 ineffective septic tanks and closing 4,000 cesspits, according to the EDF.

As South Florida’s population has increased in recent decades, its water and sewage treatment plants have struggled to keep pace. “Much of the state’s infrastructure is now nearing the end of its useful life, so maintenance is even more important,” Addie Javed, a former president of the Florida section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, told the New York Times.

Florida’s deteriorating infrastructure and the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts are expected to make it much harder for the state to handle the impacts of climate change. Similar infrastructure woes are affecting cities across the country.

In the Houston area, municipalities are still struggling to restore water service more than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey caused massive flooding to the region. At least 200 drinking water systems out of 2,238 affected by Harvey are still shut or have notices for customers to boil water, Reuters reported this weekend.


Both the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) are contacting the impacted water authorities to gather updated information of their status, the agencies said in a joint press release. Assistance teams are in the field working directly with system operators to expedite getting the systems back to operational status, they said.

Currently, 1,144 of about 1,219 wastewater treatment plants are fully operational and 40 are inoperable in the affected counties, the EPA and TCEQ said. “The agencies are aware that releases of wastewater from sanitary sewers are occurring as a result of the historic flooding and are actively working to monitor facilities that have reported spills,” they said.

“Unfortunately, most of this drainage infrastructure was overwhelmed by our rampant urban expansion that began in the 1960s and continues to this day,” Phil Bedient, director of Rice University’s Center for Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters, and Andrew Juan, a graduate student in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice, wrote in an article published Saturday by the Houston Chronicle. “No other large reservoirs have been built…. By the 1990s, most of the bayous that drain Houston were unable to contain a 100-year flood, much less the 500-year or 1,000-year variety.”

The Houston area also is home to dozens of hazardous waste cleanup sites. The EPA said 13 of the 41 of these cleanup areas in the region, known as Superfund sites, were flooded by Harvey and experienced possible damage due to the storm. Leaks and burn-offs from numerous petrochemical facilities in the region also led to the release of toxic fumes as the operators of the facilities struggled to cope with the rising flood waters.