Florida Moving Toward Overhaul of Water Laws, May Bring Back Septic Inspections

Florida moving toward overhaul of water laws, may bring back septic inspections.

It looks as if the Florida Legislature will take action to improve water quality after all.

Several years ago, legislators repealed a state law requiring septic system inspections. Since then, the state has been plagued with algae blooms, public concern about water quality has grown and many experts pointed to leaking septic systems as part of the problem. Last spring, Gov. Ron DeSantis created the Blue-Green Algae Task Force to study water-quality problems and recommend solutions that could be written into law. In October, the panel issued its first set of recommendations.

Inspections are something the task force wants back, news reports say. It also wants limits on where septic tanks can be installed, and it suggests moving oversight of onsite wastewater from the state Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection. DeSantis announced plans for legislation that would mostly follow the task force recommendations, which also include proposals about biosolids and agriculture.

Draft bills may be considered during the current legislative session, which ends March 13. Of course legislation may still be added to another bill as an amendment, says Roxanne Groover, executive director of the Florida Onsite Wastewater Association.

Task force reports were scheduled to be formally heard in legislative committee, and once that is done, there will probably be more action on legislation. “I think we’ll see a lot of it in Sen. Mayfield’s bill.”

Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, has a district that includes the Indian River along Florida’s eastern coast. The river was in the news several times in past years because of severe algae blooms. Groover says she has worked on water issues with Mayfield.

Shifting oversight of onsite systems from the Health Department to the Department of Environmental Protection will probably happen, Groover says. Mayfield wants a two-year study period for this, and the idea is to allow the departments to work out the fine points, Groover says. That does not mean it would be an easy transition, she says. “I think if everyone sits down and has an honest discussion, without assigning blame, then this can be a positive.”

Some people think the Environmental Protection Agency is the right agency for oversight because wastewater is an environmental issue, and others believe the Health Department may be taking too long to approve new onsite technologies, she says.

Groups concerned about onsite systems generally seem to be coming together and taking ownership of the solutions to water-quality problems, Groover says. And what she is seeing from these groups is good: a recognition that there should be a mix of conventional and nitrogen-reducing systems where there is sufficient land, plus the need to convert some areas from onsite systems to municipal sewer.

Groover says she is more optimistic than in the past about visibility for the onsite industry and the perception that it has something to offer. Last summer she talked with a number of groups and legislators and their staffs. “We have more people who realize the onsite industry has options now,” she says. And staff members of the House and Senate have been referring people to the Florida Onsite Wastewater Association as a resource for information.


The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case asking whether the Clean Water Act should be expanded to cover pollution moving through groundwater from a pipe. The case involves deep injection wells that Maui County has used for years to dispose of treated wastewater. Pollution from the wells was found to be seeping into the Pacific Ocean, and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund and other groups sued to say this violated the Clean Water Act. Yet the case was on the verge of going nowhere just before the justices met.

Last fall, the Maui County Council voted to settle the case. When a case is settled before a court hearing, it is withdrawn from the court’s calendar. But Maui Mayor Mike Victorino says he didn’t want to settle. That produced a debate over which branch of Maui government had the final authority, and it produced dueling letters to the court. The first came from the chair of the County Council and asked the court to either dismiss the case or delay it until county officials could resolve their differences. The second letter came from the corporation counsel, the county’s top lawyer, and says the county was not asking for any delay or dismissal.

Victorino, in a column for The Maui News, says the case should proceed because it would clarify the issue once and for all. Lack of clarity, and uncertainty about permit requirements, could impair the county’s water recycling efforts, he writes.

Although the case involves a municipal wastewater plant, the justices in November recognized and discussed an issue important to the onsite industry: whether septic tank owners could suddenly find themselves liable for pollution because water from their systems was leaking into some other body of navigable water and they didn’t have a permit.

The court does not have a set timetable for issuing decisions. An audio recording of the oral arguments and a transcript are available here: www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/audio/2019/18-260. 


The topic of a statewide sanitary code is back on the table for some people in the state. A summit in Traverse City in early November was sold out, yet participants were not in agreement about the need for a comprehensive statewide code.

Michigan is the only state without a set of statewide rules, reports the Traverse City Record-Eagle. People at the summit agreed that because of the threat to human health, septic systems in rural Michigan should not be left alone to decay. But some summit participants say locally drawn rules would be better able to account for local geology and protect water quality. Others say the state should set minimums, and municipalities should have the option of setting stricter standards.

The last attempt at a statewide code failed in the Legislature in December 2018. That bill drew widespread opposition from local health departments and governments who complained that it was drafted behind closed doors and with minimal input from local officials.

Also in Michigan, Kalkaska County will not be allowed to drop its point-of-sale septic inspection rule as officials had planned. The county, in the northwestern part of the Lower Peninsula and near Lake Michigan, had adopted the inspection program through District Health Department No. 10. Because of that, the other counties in the district had to give permission for Kalkaska County to leave the program. Last fall, commissioners in nearby Manistee County voted 5-1 to deny permission.

Kalkaska County had debated leaving the inspection program for months, and the decision of Manistee County did not go down well. “Kalkaska will not be held hostage,” says county commissioner David Comai, according to the statewide news website MLive. County leaders vowed to challenge the decision in some way.

Jeff Dontz, chair of the Manistee County Board, says commissioners felt justified in their decision because it protects water quality for county residents. He says he had received more comments on this issue, from people in both counties, than on any other issue during his 13 years as a commissioner.

MLive notes that Kalkaska County is at the headwaters of the Manistee River, a noted trout fishery that runs through Manistee County before emptying into Lake Michigan at the city of Manistee.

North Dakota

State onsite organizations are calling on the Legislature to create a new agency that would develop statewide codes and licensing procedures for onsite work.

As it stands, wastewater professionals must be licensed by each county where they work, reports West Dakota Fox television in Bismarck.

“You have customers in those areas that you service, but then you don’t get those calls from your customers. And afterward they’ll come and talk to you and say, ‘Why wasn’t your name on the list? We would’ve called you to do this,’” says Tom Schimelfenig of the North Dakota Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association, according to the station.

The new agency would become part of the Department of Environmental Quality.

New Hampshire

Last summer, the state adopted tough standards for the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals in water supplies. Later, the chemical company 3M — which developed PFAS — and local stakeholders went to court asking for an injunction to stop the rules. An attorney for 3M argues the state did not allow enough public input on its standards and did not fully examine the cost to water utilities, reports New Hampshire Public Radio. The state is also suing 3M for causing PFAS contamination.

PFAS have been made since the 1940s and are used in a wide variety of products including carpet, fabric, paper packaging and some firefighting foams. Although research on the effects of PFAS is not complete, results so far suggest that high concentrations in humans may increase cholesterol levels, decrease response to vaccines, increase risk of thyroid disease, decrease fertility in women and increase the risk of high blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnant women.

The PFAS issue also extends to the onsite industry. Last summer, the state notified Biological Recycling Co., which processes septage and land-spreads sludge, that it is the likely source of PFAS contamination in wells on neighboring properties.


An ordinance introduced in New Castle County would make permanent a one-year moratorium on large developments using septic systems.

The current, temporary moratorium was passed last February to provide time for creation of a master plan for the southern end of the county, reports Delaware Public Media. New Castle County occupies the western shore of the Delaware River, the upper portion of Delaware Bay, and includes the city of Wilmington. Smaller subdivisions using septic systems are still allowed under the moratorium.

Landowners and farmers says a permanent moratorium would significantly reduce the value of their land. Delaware Public Media quotes Gary Warren, who owns 134 acres of farmland. “Right now, I can build up to 160, 180 units on my farm with sewer,” he says. “With septic, I can probably build close to 100. If this goes into effect, I can build four.”


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