Florida can’t move forward on pollution because of places like ‘Dead Shark Acres’

Eliminating some septic tanks while approving even more shows why we can’t fix our waterways and springs

July 21, 2022 7:00 am

Wakulla Springs. Credit: Hannes Grobe via Wikimedia Commons

Shark Week, aka “the Week the Discovery Channel Tries to Scare the Bejeezus Out of Its Viewers,” starts next week. Meanwhile the National Geographic Channel, trying to get a jump on the competition, has already launched “SharkFest,” calling it (brace yourself) “Must-Sea TV.”

All these shark shows mean a lot to us here in Florida because more people are bitten by sharks here than anywhere else in the world. I’m no shark expert, but I think it’s because we Floridians have such good taste.

Here’s a fun fact about sharks: They can’t back up. They have to keep swimming forward. That’s the only way they can pass water over their gills and breathe. If they stop or try to go in reverse, they die. Kind of gives that “Just Keep Swimming” song from the movie “Finding Nemo” a different spin, doesn’t it?

I mention this because I heard about a very un-shark-like situation going on in Wakulla County. Wakulla was moving forward — and then, just like that, it was going backwards instead.

North Florida’s Wakulla Springs. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Wakulla, located in the Panhandle near Tallahassee, is named for Wakulla Springs, which contains no sharks but plenty of gators, manatees, and other wildlife. It’s part of our award-winning state park system, which has proclaimed it “the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs.”

Folks in Wakulla County tend to be as protective of their famous spring as a mama mockingbird dive-bombing a crow that’s gone too near her nest. The latest threat, I’m told, is from an as-yet unnamed development by a company called Watkins Properties.

The Wakulla County Commission has already given initial approval to Watkins’ request for a change in the county’s comprehensive plan for growth. But Wakulla’s springs advocates are blowing a gasket because the development requires 88 septic tanks to handle the new residents’ poop.

Septic tanks are a big water pollution problem around Florida. The state is spending millions of tax dollars converting old septic tanks over to connections to sewer plants or better septic systems.

Gil Damon of Clean Water Wakulla told me last week that one of the places where the state’s doing that is in Wakulla County. The Watkins development, he said, “is within a mile of where they’re doing a current septic to sewer conversion project.”

A June letter from the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity to Wakulla’s commissioners makes the Watkins project sound even worse. It notes that “the site is surrounded by numerous septic-to-sewer projects.” Surrounded!

The state’s spending $76 million trying to rid Wakulla of polluting septic tanks, according to the Northwest Florida Water Management District. So far it’s gotten rid of more than 1,009 of them.

Yet even as the state is moving Wakulla forward by spending lots of our money, Wakulla’s commissioners are taking the county backwards. If they ultimately greenlight the Watkins’ project and its 88 new septic tanks, they might as well play the annoying garbage truck back-up klaxon: BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

In other words, if Wakulla County were a shark, it’d be dead in the water.

When I first heard about this, I worried Wakulla’s not alone. I wondered if we’ve got a whole school of dead sharks scattered around the state where counties are approving more septic tanks just as fast as the old ones are pulled out.

An expert I talked to this week told me I was right to be concerned: “This is happening all over Florida.”

Poopy caverns

Jim Stevenson is, to me, Mr. Florida Springs. When I was working on a series of stories in 2014 about the state’s degraded springs, one of the first things I did was call him. We spent some quality time traipsing around North Florida, looking at springs, sinkholes, and swallets.

Not long after Jeb “Random Punctation Mark” Bush was sworn in as governor, Stevenson was assigned to guide him on a publicity stunt — er, I mean canoe trip — along the Ichetucknee River.

Jim Stevenson. Credit: Courtesy of Jim Stevenson

Stevenson took the opportunity to convince the new governor to launch a Save the Springs initiative. Bush put Stevenson in charge of it.

The longtime Florida Parks Service employee convened a bunch of experts, and they came up with a bunch of solid recommendations. Some of them could be implemented without any legislative action. That was smart because the Legislature passed only one of the ones that required lawmakers’ help.

The one they passed required regular inspections of septic tanks. If the tank was found to be malfunctioning, then the owner would have to pay to replace it. Simple, right?

Septic tank owners, unaccustomed to paying so much as a dime for doody disposal, howled about the expense. Rattled legislators repealed the law before inspections even started. Bush’s successor as governor, Rick “I Love the Smell of a Fishkill In the Morning” Scott, signed the repeal into law, then defended it later when massive algae blooms began.

So now, instead of the septic tank users paying to deal with their mess, we taxpayers have to foot the bill. Be sure you thank Sen. Scott for that next time he and his ubiquitous Navy ballcap stop by your town for a photo op.

Stevenson is now retired, but he still keeps an eye on the springs. He wrote a letter to the Wakulla County Commission opposing the Watkins project and its septic tanks. When I saw that, I called him to ask him how he first learned that septic tanks are bad news for Florida’s springs.

“It started with spelunkers in Florida Caverns State Park,” he said. “They found there was poop in it — raw sewage.”

When the Civilian Conservation Corps (one of FDR’s New Deal programs to put the country back to work during the Great Depression) built the park’s visitors’ center, “they put the septic tank right on top of the cavern system,” Stevenson said.

Park officials switched the visitors’ center plumbing to the municipal sewer system of nearby Marianna, he said. But then they discovered that other parks had a similar set-up and, instead of effluent dripping into a dry cave, the septic tanks were tainting the springs.

At Ichetucknee Springs State Park, the septic tank was within 200 feet of the head spring and had to be moved farther away, he said. And at Manatee Springs State Park, the septic tank had been put right on top of the main cave, he said. That one had to be moved too.

“People back then, when they were building these things, back in the ’30s and ’40s, they didn’t know,” Stevenson said.

But now they do. Yet they keep doing it anyway.

Stevenson and I agreed that installing a septic tank near a spring these days is like taking up smoking. In the 1940s, people thought puffing away on a Camel was a healthy habit. Now we know better. But a few people these days choose to light up anyway, regardless of how bad it may be for their health.

There’s a highly scientific term for people like that: Morons.

Dating to Garfield

I made several attempts to reach both the chairwoman of the Wakulla County Commission, Quincee Messersmith, and an Apalachicola attorney named Steve Watkins, who’s listed as the registered agent for Watkins Properties.

Neither one called me back. Perhaps they were out sharing a cigarette.

To find out what they might have said, I watched the May 16 commission meeting. That’s the one in which Messersmith and her colleagues voted 4-1 to approve a change in the comprehensive plan for the development, which I have decided to call Dead Shark Acres.

The lone opponent to Dead Shark Acres was Chuck Hess, a former U.S. Forest Service biologist who tends to say what he thinks and not what’s palatable to other politicians.

Chuck Hess. Credit: Wakulla County Commission

He was urging the others to turn down the developer for proposing septic tanks instead of some cleaner system. At one point, he turned to another commissioner and said, “I know he’s your friend, but it’s irresponsible of him to do this.”

The counterargument I heard from the fans of Dead Shark Acres was, basically, this: The pollution numbers at the spring look better now than they did in the 1990s, thanks to the state’s recent cleanup work. The developer wants to stick to septic tanks. And the state isn’t forcing us to require anything cleaner. So, they concluded, where’s the problem?

I’m guessing those four commissioners missed an interesting story I read recently, a 2019 special report in the Daytona Beach News-Journal. It spelled out what a colossal pollution headache Florida’s 2.7-million septic systems had become, at least for those of us who prefer our waterways to be free of fecal material.

The story notes that the guy who invented the septic tank was a Frenchman named John Moura. (How’d you like to have THAT be your claim to fame?). Moura patented the design in 1881, the same year Garfield was elected president and, no, I do not mean the Monday-hating cartoon cat.

“Septic tanks have long been a low-cost way to handle sewage in Florida and across the country,” the story noted. “Spending a few thousand dollars per home on a septic tank was cheaper than laying lines for municipal sewers.”

Here’s how one works: Whenever you flush — whatever you flush — the waste runs out to the septic tank where “grease rises to the top,” the story said. “Solids settle to the bottom and are broken down by bacteria. The water in between flows out to the drain field through a series of perforated pipes under the lawn.”

Classic 19tth century technology — nothing complicated.

But that simplicity is a drawback. Septic tanks were designed to get rid of our stinky stuff without making us sick. They were NOT designed to block an essential ingredient of poo-poo pollution — nitrogen — from getting into any nearby water body or underground aquifer and wreaking havoc.

“Why are we continuing to put in these conventional septic systems that remove only 10 percent of the nitrogen?” asked Brian LaPointe, a water quality expert with the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Vero Beach and the guy who told me how widespread this Dead Sharks Acres situation is. “This is Florida’s dirty little secret.”

Put down that shovel!

LaPoint is a scientist with a Ph.D. in biology but, when we talked, he referred to a scientific principle with which I, a layman from the Panhandle, am quite familiar: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Brian LaPointe. Credit: Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution

LaPointe told me he’s done pollution studies for local governments all over the state. He said he has repeatedly pointed out that septic tanks are a major source of the pollution fueling the toxic algae blooms they’d like to stop.

Every time, he told me, the same thing happens.

“They very graciously thank me for my work,” he said. “But they don’t want to put the shovel down.”

So, despite his advice, they keep digging their hole deeper by approving more septic tank-reliant projects like Dead Shark Acres. They do it just as carelessly as they continue approving new development in low-lying coastal areas prone to inundation as the sea level creeps higher.

It’s what the developers want: namely, something fast and cheap, LaPointe said.

I could see why they act that way. Why bother doing the right thing with Dead Shark Acres when the taxpayers are just going to pick up the tab someday anyway? By then the developer will have collected the profits, dumped some cash in the commissioners’ campaign account, and moved on.

Surely, you say, septic tank technology has evolved since the 19th century. Indeed, it has! Not as much as, say, telephones (no pocket-size toilets that snap pictures), but a little.

The problem with the new designs, which LaPointe said eliminate most nitrate pollution, is that they are more expensive. Not a lot more, but just enough to make them unattractive to Fast-And-Cheap Homebuilders Inc.

The only way they’ll switch is if they’re told to switch. What’s needed, LaPointe told me, is some political leadership on the issue.

I had to stifle a laugh when he said that. Anyone expecting leadership from our sitting legislators on anything — other than how fast they kowtow to the builders of places like Dead Shark Acres — is going to be deeply disappointed.

As for our governor, Ron “Give the Developers Whatever They Want” DeSantis, forget it. He once promised to clean up toxic algae blooms but then ignored the recommendations of the task force he appointed.

The only way DeSantis would impose tougher requirements on septic systems is if you convinced him that using the nasty old tech leads to schools teaching kids that LGBTQ people are normal human beings.

Until we get some folks in the House, Senate, and Governor’s Mansion who are determined to do something about all that doody, we’re stuck with our septic tank woes. Every advance will be wiped out by a Wakulla back-pedal.

The result, if you ask me, is a real sh— show. And no, the missing letters do not spell “shark.”

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.