The Dangers Associated with Septic Systems
Estero has changed dramatically since the first inhabitants settled in the early 1900s. These early settlement areas did not have sanitary sewer systems, and homes relied on wells and septic systems. Some of those holdover infrastructure elements – namely, septic systems, particularly those that are aging and failing – are a risk to our region’s water quality and human health.
Estero’s Current Septic versus Sewer Landscape
Estero currently has more than 700 septic systems. While some were built after updated regulations in 1980, most are older and have begun to fail. Most of the systems of concern are near the Estero River off-Broadway, Highlands Ave, and Sandy Lane. They include the mobile home/manufactured home communities of Cypress Bend, Estero Bay Village, and Sunny Groves.
(Written by Heather Duane, Member of Engage Estero’s Communications Committee)
In addition, many available building lots (an estimated 900) are not currently attached to the municipal sewer system and will require a hook-up to the system before home construction. The hook-up could mean approximately 1,600 homes and lots requiring connection to the Lee County Utilities municipal sewer system.
Newer communities, which have given rise to Estero’s growth, were required to install a modern piped sewer and main structure. This cost was included in each home, apartment, or condominium purchase price.
To balance infrastructure needs with concern for our region’s water quality and environmental stability, the Village of Estero has prioritized the plan to convert most of these 700 homes to the municipal sewage system, with some exceptions.
Engage Estero’s Actions
June Article on the Dangers of Septic
Read more about the negative impacts of septic systems and why the Estero Village Council has prioritized conversion of homes that still have them.
Click to read an original Engage Estero article from June 2022.
In 2022, a survey conducted by Engage Estero (then the Estero Council of Community Leaders) helped identify community priorities including environmental protection and health and safety – both of which are impacted by the septic-to-sewer conversion.
Environmental and Safety Concerns
Many of these aging, existing septic systems are in the water table, and seepage from the septic systems runs off into the Estero River.
In early 2020, FGCU’s Water School conducted a study for the Village of Estero to analyze the sources of pollution in the Estero River, particularly fecal indicator bacteria. The issue of bacteria in the Estero River has been known for the past few years and has been studied extensively, particularly by the Calusa Waterkeepers, reported L. Donald Duke, Ph.D., Professor and Interim Chair, Department of Ecology and Environmental Studies at FGCU’s Water School.
The Water School’s investigation, funded by the Village Council, documented high bacteria levels and from where it is coming. The study concluded that the high pollution counts in some areas of the Estero River could be from aging septic systems in neighborhoods near the river.
The Village supported further tests between July 22 and October 4, 2022, but no further tests have been conducted since that date. While there was no appreciable change in the bacterial levels immediately after Hurricane Ian’s impact, Professor Duke explained this was likely the result of a “wash through” effect. This occurs where the higher than normal water flow tends to flush through any immediate increases in bacterial levels. Interestingly, the October 4th reading showed little change to the high bacterial level figures identified before Hurricane Ian.
What is not known at this time is whether there has been any physical and structural damage to underground pipes or septic systems. If that occurred, Professor Duke indicated that it might take some time to trickle into the river over the coming months. At this time, it is not clear whether the Village has or will sanction further testing.
Supporting Estero’s Responsible Growth and Protecting Water Quality
Individuals and the Village of Estero staff and Council members started discussions on converting the septic systems to the municipal sanitary sewer system after Hurricane Irma in September 2017, when flooding caused many septic systems to overflow and discharge into our waterways.
A contracted analysis provided the current location of all main sewer lines managed and maintained by Lee County Utilities in Estero and found that a main sewer line was never installed between Corkscrew Road and Estero Parkway along US 41.
The contract also required the identification of homes and lots not serviced by potable water, that is drinking water, that comes from surface and ground sources.
The contractor’s thought was to work the most accessible connections, such as those neighborhoods with package plants (where one tank serves several homes using a centralized system).
The consultant provided an estimate of $70 million to complete the Village’s conversion from septic to sewer, including installing potable water. The estimate doesn’t include the cost to homeowners to connect from the street to their homes and the related impact fees to connect.
The contractor’s study divided the conversion from septic to sewer into Phase I, package plants, and future phases. Three Estero communities had package plants: Sunny Grove, Cypress Bend, and Estero Bay Village. These three mobile home communities currently have potable water for each home.
There was a clear need to convert the septic systems and help ensure our water gets and stays clean, which has been further emphasized by the devastating impacts of Hurricane Ian in September 2022.
Phase 1 of the project started in October 2021 with design and permitting. Throughout the process, permitting became more complicated. Where the sewer line crossed under the Estero River, permits were required from South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) https://www.sfwmd.gov/, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) https://floridadep.gov/south/, Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) https://www.usace.army.mil/, Florida Department of Health (https://www.floridahealth.gov/), and possibly others.
The Fay family, which owns the Seminole Gulf Railway, would have required a one-time $800,000 fee to run the Cypress Bend sewer main line under their rail bed. The Village declined, requiring a change in plans and direction to connect to the existing Lee County Utilities main sewer line.
The challenge in connecting the Sunny Grove community will be installing a sewer line under the Estero River, which will require various environmental and water district permits in addition to the regular permits.
Lee County Utilities requires independent testing of these communities’ package plants before connecting them to county sewer lines. At its September 8, 2022, meeting, the Estero Village Council approved and awarded a contract to the National Water Main Cleaning Company for inspection of the package plants. This inspection will include identifying any issues or concerns, a plan to fix any problems, and re-inspection after identified issues or concerns are resolved.
The inspection resulted in relocated sewer line locations and additional required permits and inspections; for the three mobile home communities impacted by the conversion, Sunny Grove, Cypress Bend, and Estero Bay Village, this also increased the cost.
What Comes Next
Phase II entails converting most of the Village’s remaining septic systems to sewer and installing potable water. Design and permitting for phase II started in September 2022 and will most likely be completed in multiple subphases. These could be tied to federal, state, and county grants applied for and received.
Funds and sources identified in the FY2023 Village of Estero Capital Improvement Plan include:
Construction will begin when the contracts for Phase I are awarded, likely in the spring or summer of this year.
Cumulatively, the septic-to-sewer project will involve transitioning 12 Estero neighborhoods to sewer systems, including two mobile home communities on the Estero River west of Koreshan State Park. Sewer system installation scheduled initially for four communities identified as the most significant contributors to the septic issues has for a variety of reasons, been pushed back to mid to late 2023.
Transitioning will be a lengthy process lasting at least five years, but one that will help clean up the Estero River, Estero Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Read more about the specific impacts on homeowners and the affected communities in an upcoming Part 3 of this article series, to be released in the next few weeks.
The Timing and Costs Associated with Septic Systems to Sewer Conversions
The Impact on Homeowners in Affected Areas
Village officials shared general details about the project scope and timeline at a public information session at the Recreational Center on February 22nd. They stressed the importance of pursuing this project to mitigate these aging systems’ impact on the water quality of the Estero River and Estero Bay. However, much more must be done. For those owning the impacted homes or looking to build on a vacant piece of land, there are many outstanding questions about the project.
Timing and Scope of the Project
At the February meeting, the Village laid out a general timeline for the project. Sixty percent of the planning process was complete as of February 14, 2023. The complete plans are expected by mid-June. Next, permitting is expected to take approximately three months.
The time-line for bidding and construction are still to be determined. Numerous factors will impact construction, including permitting, land acquisition and right-of-way questions, funding, grants, and approval by the Village of Estero council. Johnson Construction, a contractor working on the project, estimated that “groundbreaking” could take up to two years. The project will have up to three additional public information sessions during this time.
Village Manager Steve Sarkozy shared that the Broadway West area will likely be tackled first. While the February meeting was explicitly directed to impacted homeowners in the Broadway West area, this project will encompass a much larger area of the Village.
The impacted communities and areas involved include Estero on the River, Quarterdeck Cove, Cranbrook Harbor, Estero River Heights, and various homes on Sherill Lane, Leuttich Lane, Charting Cross Circle, Park Place, and Coconut Drive. Quarterdeck Cove only requires septic sewer conversion as the community already has Lee County potable water.
General details about the utility expansion were also shared at the public information meeting:
- The Village will install potable water and sanitary sewer systems.
There are also plans to install storm drains and pipes to help move stormwater out to Estero Bay
- Once built, Lee County Utilities will operate and maintain the systems
- Homeowners will be required to connect from their homes to the potable water and sanitary sewer systems and to crush and fill their septic systems
Specific Project and Homeowner Costs Remain Undetermined
A consultant has previously provided an estimate of $70 million to complete the Village’s conversion from septic to sewer, including installing potable water. This amount does not include the cost to homeowners to connect to their homes and the impact fees to connect. (https://www.leegov.com/utilities/customer-resource-center/rates-fees/new-construction)
Neither additional cost details nor a cost-per-homeowner was provided. Factors that could impact both the overall cost and cost to homeowners include funding and grants, which, if secured, would likely lower the cost of the connections for homeowners.
At the meeting, some homeowners voiced concerns about the lack of clarity on individual costs and whether a mandated upgrade was their preferred choice. There were also concerns expressed by those about to complete their new home constructions in the next year or so as these properties will require a sewerage system. But if the time-table means that connections to mains utilities will not occur for possibly 3 years or more, a septic system will need to be installed at a cost of $20-30,000, only to be converted at a further cost to the mains system when that becomes available. Read coverage of the meeting from WGCU: Residents voice concerns over Estero’s sewer system project | WGCU PBS & NPR for Southwest Florida
Engage Estero will continue our mission to build trust by providing transparency, listening to citizens, evaluating government plans and other local activities, and communicating informed and collective opinions to residents. We will research and share findings, seek opportunities, offer solutions, and challenge threats to encourage citizen engagement.
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