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Nonpoint Source Septic Tank Education Project

State: FL Type: Promising Practice Year: 2020

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Florida Department of Health in Duval County
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Nonpoint Source Septic Tank Education Project

Duval County is located in the northeast region of Florida. It covers 918 square miles including all land and water, is home to 954,454 people, and contains two of the largest Naval Bases in the southeast U.S. The 2014-2018 U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 5 year-estimates reports that the population of Duval County is 60.3% White, 29.6% Black, and 9.3% Hispanic. The median household income in Duval County is $53,473 and 15.5% of the population is below the poverty line. The median age in Duval County is 36.1 years old.

Under Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act, every two years each state must identify its impaired” waters, including estuaries, lakes, rivers, and streams that do not meet their designated uses and are not expected to improve within the subsequent two years. Florida's 303(d) list identifies hundreds of water segments that fall short of water quality standards. The three most common water quality concerns are fecal coliform, nutrients, and oxygen-demanding substances. In Duval County, 75 local tributaries are considered impaired for fecal coliform.

The purpose of this project is to implement load reduction strategies, specific to Onsite Sewage Treatment and Disposal Systems (OSTDS), to reduce the potential for fecal coliform impact in Lower St. Johns River Basin tributaries.  OSTDS were deemed by the environmental engineering firm Post, Buckley, Schuh & Jernigan (PBS&J) to be one of the most probable sources of fecal coliform. Approximately 1/3 of Duval's residents and commercial properties rely on OSTDS for sewage disposal and this project focused on the 75 local tributaries considered impaired for fecal coliform.

Potential contaminants that degrade the quality of surface and groundwater resources as a result of septic system failure include disease causing bacteria, infectious viruses, household chemicals, and nutrients (nitrates and phosphates). These contaminants present a public health threat to the community. This project provided registered septic tank contractors, certified plumbers, inspectors, professional engineers, stakeholders, and members of the public with the most current available information pertaining to failing septic systems that may be contributing fecal coliforms to the St. Johns River and its tributaries including, but not limited to:

             Basin Management Action Plans

             Nonpoint Source Pollution Sources

             Basin Hydrology/Water Quality Trends

             Hydric Soil Indicators

             Septic Maintenance and Use

             Performance Based Treatment Systems

             Septic Tank Enforcement Projects

             Legislative Updates

Results and Outcomes

The goals and objectives of this project were achieved by focusing on pollution reduction strategies through septic system education and public outreach events at community health fairs, training workshops, town hall meetings, and environmental symposiums. Fourteen (14) education and public outreach events have occurred providing educational material and instruction to over 1,500 participants. The water quality impacts are based on several fundamental assumptions about the pollutants targeted, modeling approaches, waterbody responses, and natural processes. However, it is difficult to determine quantitative load reductions expected from the project's management actions to decrease fecal coliform due to a lack of literature values and high variability. Therefore, the benefits of these management actions, such as education and public outreach initiatives, are evaluated on a qualitative basis matching elimination, reduction, and prevention activities to known or potential sources.

Public Health Impacts

The effects of education and public awareness should result in an increased number of homeowners having their septic systems pumped out and inspected on a regular basis, more efficient water usage, a decrease in hazardous chemicals being discarded into septic systems, and better maintenance of OSTDS in general.  It is expected that these effects will be observed long after the end of this project which should aid in further reductions of fecal coliform bacteria from OSTDS. 

Website:

http://duval.floridahealth.gov/

Florida's 303(d) list identifies hundreds of water segments that fall short of water quality standards. The three most common water quality concerns are fecal coliform, nutrients, and oxygen-demanding substances. These listed water segments are candidates for more detailed assessments of water quality to determine whether they are impaired according to state statutory and rule criteria. The Department develops and adopts Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for the waterbody segments it identifies as impaired. A TMDL is the maximum amount of a specific pollutant that a waterbody can accumulate while still safely maintaining its designated uses.

Potential contaminants that degrade the quality of surface and groundwater resources as a result of septic system failure include disease causing bacteria, infectious viruses, household chemicals, and nutrients (nitrates and phosphates). These contaminants present a public health threat to the community. The project has ongoing outreach capabilities to reduce the amount of sanitary nuisances that could potentially cause adverse health effects to local residents and impacts to water quality.

The purpose of this project was to implement load reduction strategies, specific to Onsite Sewage Treatment and Disposal Systems (OSTDS), to achieve the fecal coliform Total Maximum Daily Loads for the Lower St. Johns River Basin tributaries. OSTDS were deemed, by the environmental engineering firm Post, Buckley, Schuh & Jernigan, to be one of the most probable sources of fecal coliform. This project provided registered septic tank contractors, certified plumbers, inspectors, professional engineers, stakeholders, and members of the public with information and education on septic system construction, permitting, maintenance, and the role of septic systems related to potential sources of contamination to the St Johns River and tributaries. During the most recent project, 14 education and public outreach events have occurred providing educational material and instruction to over 1,500 participants.

Nonpoint source pollution can have far reaching effects on water quality including, but not limited to, contamination of potable water supplies and algal blooms in water bodies. Water quality can have a direct impact on the health and safety of community members. This project is a collaborative effort through multiple local and state agencies to identify and eliminate nonpoint source pollution causes.

This project supports the endeavors of two (2) Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs), adopted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). This project is part of a statewide watershed management approach to restore and protect Florida's water quality. Within each BMAP, one of the criteria for sufficiency for OSTDS-related efforts to reduce fecal coliform levels in the St. Johns River and its tributaries included training programs such as those found within this project.  Using existing staff who are subject matter experts with experience in providing classroom-style training and other forms of public outreach, the Florida Department of Health in Duval County (DOH-Duval) was able to provide these services at a relatively low cost. 

This project is funded in part by a Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program Implementation grant and provides over $80,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through an agreement with FDEP in order to allow DOH-Duval to complete all actions required to fully implement load reduction strategies as described within the Basin Management Action Plans.

Cooperating organizations include the City of Atlantic Beach, City of Jacksonville, City of Jacksonville Beach, City of Neptune Beach, Florida Department of Transportation, Jacksonville Electric Authority, Naval Station Mayport, and other environmental interest groups.

Each year, the Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board along with the University of North Florida hosts an Environmental Symposium where DOH-Duval provides information and education on OSTDS construction, permitting, maintenance, and the role of septic systems related to potential sources of contamination to the St. Johns River and tributaries. Team members include Certified Environmental Health Professionals (CEHPs) who engage conference participants in conversations and answer questions about OSTDS. In addition, conference participants are given educational items that reiterate the message (i.e., to have their septic tanks pumped every three to five years, to maintain plants and vegetation near septic systems to ensure roots do not block the drains)

During each step of the education and outreach process, members of the public are encouraged to attend and participate in OSTDS workshops and town meetings.  Banners are placed on DOH-Duval's website; flyers and postcards are mailed to residents/tenants that live within BMAP I and II designated watersheds and are on septic systems (not connected to sewer). OSTDS registered contractors, certified plumbers, certified environmental health professionals, and other stakeholders within the Duval County area receive notifications as well.   

The subject matter for classroom-style workshops and the Regional OSTDS Industry Meetings provided during this project reviewed the experiences with nutrient removing OSTDS in Duval County, Florida. It focused on the Lower St. Johns River Tributaries Basin Management Action Plans that were developed by the Lower St. Johns River Tributaries Basin Working Group, which FDOH-Duval is a member, with participation from affected local, regional, and state governmental interests, elected officials and citizens, and private interests. Presentations include information on past projects, outcomes, and current updates related to DOH-Duval projects. In addition, guest speakers from other stakeholder groups were asked to participate in order to provide a broader perspective on the BMAPs and other nutrient reduction strategies being implemented.

The Nonpoint Source Septic Tank Education Project provides registered septic tank contractors, certified plumbers, inspectors, professional engineers, stakeholders, and members of the public with the most current available information pertaining to failing septic systems that may be contributing fecal coliforms to the St. Johns River and its tributaries. The primary goals of this project are:

  • Improved water quality trends in the tributaries of the Lower St. Johns River Basin that will also help improve water quality in the main stem of the river;
  • Decreased loading levels of the target pollutants (i.e., fecal coliform, nitrogen);
  • Increased public awareness of fecal coliform sources and impacts on water quality;
  • Enhanced effectiveness of corresponding corrective actions by stakeholders;
  • Enhanced understanding of basin hydrology, water quality, and pollutant sources; and
  • Greater ability to evaluate management actions, estimate their benefits, and identify additional pollutant sources.

The main objectives of this project are:

  • To protect the surface waters of the Lower St. Johns River and its tributaries through education and public outreach of the State of Florida statutes, rules, and regulations governing Onsite Sewage Treatment and Disposal Systems (OSTDS); and
  • To protect the public's health

In order to accomplish these goals and objectives, issues dealing with nonpoint source pollution, especially failing residential and commercial septic tank systems in impaired watersheds must be resolved. Through the use of education and public outreach, the Florida Department of Health in Duval County (DOH-Duval) has ensured that an increased number of registered septic tank contractors, certified plumbers, engineers, and other stakeholders can teach their clients (i.e., homeowners/tenants) how to properly use their septic systems, have septic tanks pumped out and inspected on a regular basis, use water more efficiently, decrease hazardous chemicals being discarded into septic systems, provide better maintenance of septic systems in general, and utilize more advanced technology for nitrogen reduction when appropriate. 

During the most recent project, DOH-Duval provided quarterly progress reports to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) that summarized all education and public outreach activities. This project included community health fairs, training workshops, environmental symposiums and town hall meetings where members of the public were provided OSTDS information and education. Fourteen (14) education and public outreach events have occurred providing educational material and instruction to over 1,500 participants.

The outreach and education provided as part of this project increased public awareness of the many fecal coliform sources and their impacts on water quality. A new addition to this project was the use of client surveys to obtain feedback on the effectiveness of public outreach and education. A total of 10 questions were asked to each participant and the results demonstrated that the project is very effective in educating people about septic systems and how to properly maintain them. Over 1,000 surveys have been collected and 95% of participants indicated they have a better understanding of how to maintain a septic system; 98% of participants indicated they plan to monitor and maintain their drainfield in good condition.

The effects of public awareness should result in an increased number of homeowners having their septic systems pumped out and inspected on a regular basis, more efficient water usage, a decrease in hazardous chemicals being discarded into septic systems, and better maintenance of OSTDS in general. It is expected that these effects will be observed long after the end of this project which should aid in further reductions of fecal coliform bacteria from OSTDS.

DOH-Duval continues to support the endeavors of FDEP's Basin Management Action Plans, and has made a conscious effort to look for ways to implement similar strategies in watersheds other than those listed within the Basin Management Action Plans. Through this project and future projects, it is anticipated that the DOH-Duval will continue to provide this vitally important OSTDS education and public outreach.

The 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act established the Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program. Section 319 addresses the need for greater federal leadership to help focus state and local nonpoint source efforts. Under Section 319, states, territories and tribes receive grant funding that supports a wide variety of activities including technical assistance, financial assistance, education, training, technology transfer, demonstration projects, and monitoring to assess the success of specific nonpoint source implementation projects.

Clean Water Act Section 319(h) funds are provided only to designated state and tribal agencies to implement nonpoint source management programs. State and tribal nonpoint source programs include a variety of components, including technical assistance, financial assistance, education, training, technology transfer, demonstration projects, and regulatory programs. Each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awards Section 319(h) funds to states in accordance with a state-by-state allocation formula that the EPA has developed in consultation with the states.

Section 319(h) funding decisions are made by the states. States submit their proposed funding plans to the EPA. If a state's funding plan is consistent with grant eligibility requirements and procedures, EPA then awards the funds to the state. In 2019, the EPA awarded states $165.4 million in grants to address Nonpoint Source Pollution.

The Florida Department of Health in Duval County has been awarded Section 319(h) funding since 2010. Each year, DOH-Duval applies for project funding and has been able to monitor multiple impaired watersheds on an annual basis. As previous projects have been identified as a model by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the EPA, sustainability is secured as long as Section 319(h) funding remains a viable option.

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