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Septic System Renovation Financing and Sea Level Rise

On September 27, 2015, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava put it bluntly in a Miami Herald Op Ed:


“Climate change presents a host of challenges for our future, but none nearer to the present than sea-level rise. Data from the South Florida Water Management District shows that nearly half of the drainage capacity of our canals would be lost with a mere six inches of sea-level rise, potentially turning what are now normal rainfalls into damaging floods. A greater rise would have sea water push inland, constraining our primary drinking-water source and septic and stormwater drainage systems would begin to fail with regularity.”


As sea level rise (SLR) projections accelerate for vulnerable regions across properties on all three U.S. mainland coasts, one of the earliest physical manifestations of the need for homeowner adaptation may be the need to renovate endangered and potentially frail septic tank systems.


With escalating water tables, septic systems will degrade into disrepair or just stop working. That's a major public health concern.


Designed to capture wastewater when government provided sewage pipes are not available, these underground structures are referred to as “onsite sewage facilities.”


According to Wikipedia, in North America, “approximately 25 percent of the population relies on septic tanks." In Southeastern Florida’s Miami-Dade County, according to The Biscayne Times in “Six Feet Under,” (June, 2015), there are approximately 1.6 million homes using septic systems.


Higher water tables will push up septic tank components and have the extra detrimental effect of killing the bacteria which such systems use to neutralize the effluent contained within the tanks to prevent groundwater contamination.


When will the projections made by Commissioner Cava happen? If you are in Miami-Dade County, impacts will vary depending upon your location. But here is the reality. In October, 2015, The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact released new SLR projections which were prepared by its Sea Level Rise Work Group. Above 1992 mean sea level, 6 to 10 inches of sea level rise is projected to take place by 2030, with 14 to 26 inches by 2060. 


Six inches will not suddenly appear 14 years from now. Water tables are gradually increasing, today. 


With each inch of SLR, more pressure on groundwater levels affectng inland areas and septic systems will be exerted. Before those projected heights are reached, extreme percipitation events will add extra stress to water levels below your feet. Storm surge from hurricanes is another dangerous independent variable.


Make no mistake about it, septic tanks and drainfields have been on the Compact's radar since at least October, 2012, when it called for taking inventory of such systems for adaptation planning. 


All this poses a tremendous financial challenge to the average homeowner. According to Miami-Dade County, in 2013, the median household income was $41,913, with 32 percent of the county's households earning less than $25,000 in that year. Away from the glitz of shiny architectural marvels adorning the coastal regions of Miami-Dade is where many of the region's work force resides, in communities that will need financial assistance to properly adapt to SLR. 


For new septic systems, cost projections vary wildly, but are telling. and estimate these “miniature waste treatment plants,” the “most common of which is the septic tank/absorption field system” (shown in videos on this page) "can cost between $1,500 to $4,000. " states new septic systems can cost between $4,000 and $14,000.


Given the extent of needed septic renovations, it is probable that "new" system prices are likely to be charged by contractors. 


Costs are dependent upon many variables, such as permitting charges, house size, materials used and the condition of the land along with labor expenses.


In Florida, as we approach years of increased vertical flooding inland from coastal regions, inland homeowners will not have to deal immediately with waves from the ocean lapping over their properties. Instead, the water will ultimately come from below their feet as salt water rises through our porous limestone foundation. 


For many, the first sign that something is wrong will be failing septic tanks, compromised sewage piping and perhaps damaged underground vaults.


Ignoring the problem is not an option, or community-wide health problems will appear. The challenge of financial adaptation to sea level rise as it pertains to septic systems is not one to be ignored or delayed.


In areas where homeowners are just getting by, paycheck-to-paycheck, putting out hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, to repair or renovate their residential waste treatment systems will be a severe financial challenge for which answers will be demanded from city halls.


Elected officials and their staff need to be ready for the question, “How can I, and my neigbhors, possibly afford this expense?”


The challenge of retrofitting our neighborhoods should begin today, with creative implementation of financial strategies to begin the adaptation process. 


There are several potential tools available to address the challenge. Some have suggested local property tax rebates or credits to help secure and fortify septic systems. Green bond programs specifically designed to build municipal sewer systems in septic-only areas is another tool.


Other answers include federal tax incentives, such as deductions or credits which can be considered by Congress. Mortgage payment abatement periods can also be used, to promote longer use of affected properties and avoid foreclosures. Creative public private partnerships can be envisioned to convert and upgrade communities. Even low cost "micro-loans" can be financed by innovative Wall Street/Main Street strategies. 


Septic tank renovation financing tools should be a high priority for local and state governments in 2016. Such a strategy is crucial to keeping communities intact, so that as we approach mid-century (only 34 years away) in vulnerable areas, we can avoid community waste floating in yards and fields, severe public health problems and population flight.


For a thriving community, septic renovation is an economic, and human, imperative. 


Posted 12.5.15. Post by Mitch Chester

Will rising ground water levels pushed up by sea level rise imperil septic systems currently used by homeowners? Above is a case study for the Cape Cod region. Video courtesy Association to Preserve Cape Cod and YouTube.

How a a traditional septic system system with a field works. Video courtesy HealthHabitat Australia and YouTube, September 1, 2011.

A report on how sea level rise will affect septic tanks in Miami-Gardens, Florida. Video courtesy Garfield Williams and You Tube, July 6, 2014.

Septic tanks threatening public health. Video courtesy Karina Gandylyan and YouTube, July 24, 2014. 

For more information about the impact of sea level rise on South Florida, please watch "South Florida's Rising Seas: Impact."  Courtesy WPBT 2, Florida International University and YouTube. Aired July 2, 2015. 

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