You probably don’t expect to pick up a copy of Arbus and read about Florida’s sewage crisis and sea level rise. But human waste and rising waters are polluting waterways throughout the state, including our beloved St. Johns River. With more than 300,000 new residents moving to Florida each year, this significant problem is only getting worse.
A Sewage Crisis
Wastewater treatment plants convert sewage into an effluent that either is discharged into our waterways or reused as reclaimed water for irrigation. The biosolids, or sewage sludge, that remain are then converted into fertilizers, disposed of in landfills, or applied to agricultural lands. In addition, thirty percent of the 21.6 million people in Florida rely on an estimated 2.6 million septic tanks for their wastewater disposal. When you consider there are also over sixty-eight million head of livestock in our state, you can imagine how much human and animal waste is produced annually.
The big problem is nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorous – that are in our waste don’t just go away, but are moved around and sometimes concentrated in certain areas with disastrous results.
For instance, over seventy percent of all of the sewage sludge that is permitted for land application in Florida is being disposed of in our St. Johns River watershed. That represents more than 89,000 tons of sludge each year. As a result, high concentrations of phosphorous are running off farmlands and into the headwaters of our river.
As the St. Johns slowly flows north, nutrient pollution from septic tanks, reclaimed water, wastewater effluent, animal waste, and fertilizers enter our river along the way, fueling toxic algae blooms that are harmful to our economy, wildlife, and human health. Factor in rising water temperatures from a warming planet, and toxic blooms may become more frequent and widespread.
Advocating for Greater Protections
Over the years, St. Johns Riverkeeper has successfully fought for more protective limits on the excessive nitrogen and phosphorous that are polluting our waterways. However, nutrient pollution remains one of the most serious water quality problems in Florida and much more must be done.
During the most recent legislative session, St. Johns Riverkeeper worked hard to get legislation passed that would put limits on the amount of sewage sludge polluting our river. Despite bipartisan support, polluter lobbyists killed the bill at the last minute. In fact, no bills were passed to significantly improve water quality in our state. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is currently developing rules to further regulate biosolids, but the draft provisions simply don’t go nearly far enough. The time has come for Florida to get serious about stopping pollution at its source and developing a comprehensive waste management plan for the entire state that will sustainably address this growing problem.
We Have to Talk About Sea Level Rise
We must also get serious about the threats from climate change, sea level rise, and increasing water levels in the St. Johns River. Over the last one-hundred years, the St. Johns at Mayport has risen by almost one foot. The rate of increase has nearly doubled in the last twenty-five years and continues to accelerate. Jacksonville could be faced with three feet of sea level rise by 2060.
In addition to sea level rise, decades of dredging have added insult to injury by increasing water levels and storm surge, making Jacksonville even more vulnerable to storms and flooding. The current dredging project in Jacksonville will further exacerbate this problem. The Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that even smaller, “high frequency” storms could increase storm surge and the maximum water levels in the St. Johns River by an additional twelve percent due to the deeper channel.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), “Higher sea levels mean that deadly and destructive storm surges push farther inland than they once did, which also means more frequent nuisance flooding.”
This is certainly true in Jacksonville. When Hurricane Irma passed by seventy miles to the west in 2017 it was a weak Category 1 storm, yet the storm surge was the equivalent of a Category 3 storm. This shockingly caused historic flooding that inundated streets, homes, and businesses with salty water from the ocean and our river.