Rules & Regs: Florida Moves Toward Water Quality Overhaul

Also in this month's regulations update, the U.S. Supreme Court hears Maui County, Hawaii's case

Rules & Regs: Florida Moves Toward Water Quality Overhaul

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This year, it looks as if the Florida Legislature will take action to improve water quality.

Several years ago, legislators repealed a state law requiring septic system inspections.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. In April, 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 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 must be submitted by Nov. 22 for consideration in the next legislative session. That begins on Jan. 14 and ends on 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 on Nov. 13, she says, 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 shore. The river was in the news several times in past years because of severe algae blooms. Groover says she worked on water issues with Mayfield during this past summer.

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, although that doesn’t mean it would be an easy transition. “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. She says that during the 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.”

And staff members of the House and Senate have been referring people to the Florida Onsite Wastewater Association as a resource for information.

Supreme Court Hears Maui County Case

In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court did listen to 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, Hawaii, 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.

In September, 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.

On Nov. 6 the court heard oral arguments. Although the case involves a municipal wastewater plant, the justices 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. If you want more information about the case, an audio recording of the oral arguments, and a transcript, are available here:

Recent Summit Discusses Michigan Sanitary Code

The topic of a statewide sanitary code is back on the table again for some people in Michigan. 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, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle. People at the summit agreed that septic systems in rural Michigan should not be left alone to decay because of the threat to human health. 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.

Michigan County Can’t Drop Point-of-Sale Inspections

The county that wanted to drop its point-of-sale septic inspection rule will not be allowed to do so.

Kalkaska County, Michigan, 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. In late October, 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’s 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.

Onsite Organization in North Dakota Calling for New Agency

State onsite organizations are calling on the North Dakota 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.


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