By Steve Morrell
Over the years, I have become more interested in boat waste and how it affects the waters we sail and swim in, although for years, I have known how non-point source pollution (pollution that you cannot pinpoint its exact origin) and sewage overflows have been spoiling ocean waters and causing beach closings for decades. In the ’90s, I had a boat in San Diego, CA, and was aware of frequent sewage overflows by the county into the ocean. On top of this was the enormous impact that water runoff had on ocean water quality after a rain. The county of San Diego has a standing advisory to “avoid contact with ocean and bay waters for a period of 3 days…” after more than 0.2 inches of rain falls.
With all the claims by waterfront landowners that anchored boats are polluting their waters by dumping human waste, I became interested in what causes beach closings in Florida—besides the red tide. After very little investigation, it appears that many beach closings are caused by legal public sewage overflows. With all the controversy about liveaboards in upper Tampa Bay, it turns out that no beach closings have ever been attributed to boaters’ waste there. They have been the fault of sewage overflows in Hillsborough County and water runoff after heavy rains. In August 2003, a main broke on Davis Islands and dumped two-million gallons of raw sewage into Hillsborough Bay. That’s a lot of holding tanks.
I began to look into the reporting of sewage overflows by public utilities—and found they don’t make this information easily accessible. I read a recent report by the Clean Water Fund, which was an update of a 2005 report the Fund did on sewage overflow and its reporting in Florida. They found the reporting was pretty much non-existent and difficult to access by the public. They made recommendations. The 2006 update found nothing had changed much.
How much raw sewage is Florida dumping into our waters? The original report focused on all Florida counties in 2004 and found that over 55.8-million gallons of sewage were dumped. The 2006 report did not examine all the counties, but did a sampling and estimated between 44.6 and 50.3 million gallons of sewage were dumped in 2005. But these figures were very difficult to obtain. This is partly because approximately 2000 of the 2700-plus treatment plants are privately run and the sampling was only taken from the public facilities, as obtaining overflow data from private companies is difficult. Although the law states that all overflows must be reported by phone (you read it right), there is no enforcement of this requirement. Therefore, data is very limited.
One thing is for sure: Fifty-million gallons of raw sewage dumped into our waters is too much. This along with polluted nutrient runoff from rains is destroying our waters. Beach closings have increased in Florida in the last year, not decreased. And this is not just from red tide. Most beach closings are from these sewage overflows (which are legal), nutrient runoff, and—particularly in the Florida Keys—leaking septic tanks and old cesspools. Although waterfront landowners constantly claim cruisers anchored off their properties are dumping sewage in their waters, it is the landowners—along with all the rest of us who live on land and on the water—who are allowing millions of gallons of sewage to be dumped into our waters—and legally. We need to put a stop to it. With all the current growth and lack of funding for improved treatment facilities, the problem will only get worse before it gets better.
Let’s not get to the point where we have standing advisories against swimming after every rain. I’d hate to see the day when a crew overboard wants to get back on board quickly because the water was unsafe.