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Red tide not area’s only water concern

By GREG GILES

NEWS EDITOR

It’s not just your septic tank, if you have one, that’s going to come under scrutiny in the coming year.

A panel of county leaders pointed out the myriad projects and efforts underway to address red tide and blue-green algae at a Friday luncheon hosted by The Argus Foundation, a non-partisan business leadership organization, and the South County Tiger Bay Club.

It all comes down to removing nitrogen from area waterways and the groundwater.

“Many county residents don’t fully understand all that the county is doing for our water quality,” said Christine Robinson of The Argus Foundation, “especially when it comes to the Dona Bay Restoration project.”

The $25 million project, about halfway completed, is an important regional eco-restoration project, said Chuck Walter, with Sarasota County Public Works. The problem, he said, isn’t that Cow Pen Slough — that drains into Dona Bay — isn’t clean. It’s that there’s too much fresh water making it’s way into the bay.

“An oyster likes 38 days of fresh water (annually),” Walter said. “It dies after 40 days, and oysters are an important part of the filtration system” that

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removes nitrogen, which feeds red tide and bluegreen algae.

Venice reservoir coming

What to do with the extra water? The county already purchased an orange grove that’s now being dug out as a reservoir to handle excess water flow. The plan is to connect that reservoir to the old Venice Minerals Mine off Knights Trail Road to form a larger reservoir and turn the area into a recreational destination north of Venetian Golf & River Club.

Some of the water could possibly be stored underground in an aquifier storage and recovery well, or ASR. Some will go back into the Myakka River. Hopefully some will be used for the potable water supply, Walter said.

It’s the largest county restoration project in the state, covering a 2,500-acre water shed, aside from mega projects like Everglades restoration. Within two years the North Venice area will see the reservoir under construction, Walter predicted.

Fewer wastewater facilities

Meanwhile, Sarasota County is continuing with its “small package project,” reducing the number of wastewater facilities. When the project began, the county had 115 facilities. That’s down to 35 plants, Walter said.

It’s made a huge impact, for the better.

Second look at septic systems

The county also has its eyes on the Florida Legislature, hoping it will pass a bill reinstituting mandatory septic tank inspections.

County Health Officer Chuck Henry said that’s important, in light of the 44,000 permitted septic systems within the county. He’d like to see inspections every five years with an annual required pump out each year.

Septic systems, he explained, need the sewage to percolate through a certain amount of earth in order to do its job, or it re-enters the water supply with high levels of bacteria. Verifying there’s enough dirt between the tank and the water table is critical. So is the system that was put in place. Most were constructed to fit a certain need. A system meant to serve an elderly couple isn’t going to work well decades later in a residence consisting of a family of five.

If the septic tank hasn’t been pumped out in years, the amount of solids in the system has probably grown to the point where the breakdown of material meant to occur within the tank isn’t taking place at all, releasing high levels of nitrogen and bacteria back into the ground water.

Assuming a law passes reinstituting septic tank inspections, it’s likely counties and cities will further examine their own septic system programs and rules, requiring mandatory connection to new sewer lines as they come online, and enticing more property owners to do away with the systems through incentives like reduced payment plans for those who make the transition.

Old septic tank systems grandfathered under old rules, he said, remain a problem, but new testing rules could change that scenario.

Overlay districts

On the horizon, said the experts, could be adopting new Environmental Overlay Districts, like the one being studied in North Port. Areas closest to critical water supplies would require higher water quality standards, like using only the safest fertilizers, no septic tanks, and enhanced filtration methods. All of these efforts cost money.

The new buzzword in county circles, said Walter, is “pollutant trading.”

“Where is the best investment for reduction of nutrients? We will be looking at that in the future,” he said.

Email: ggiles@venicegondolier.com

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