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Septic Tank Phase-Out Aims To Reduce Fecal Bacteria

Catherine Dillingham's septic tank is pooped out.

"It's old... I just had [it] pumped about two months ago. It was full."

But a full septic tank is not what qualified Dillingham’s home for a new sewer hookup - courtesy of the City of Jacksonville and JEA. It was a more natural and free-flowing feature."I have a creek running through my property," said Dillingham.

Dillingham’s Arlington home runs right up against Strawberry Creek - which makes it a perfect candidate for the new septic tank phase-out program. The city is planning to remove around 400 tanks, tapping $6.9 million in a utility account to make it happen. It’s a sweet-smelling deal for homeowners: the work would usually cost them between $8,000-$12,000, according to Greg Corcoran, Project Outreach Manager at JEA.

"The idea is to prevent nitrogen from going into the river - which is what the septic systems have leeching into these waterways," said Corcoran.

In addition to nitrogen, the tanks can release fecal coliform bacteria.

The 1972 Federal Clean Water Act requires governments to identify water bodies that are impaired by contaminants, come up with a plan to fix them and monitor the progress. In 2014, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection identified 135 water body segments in Duval County that were impaired by various things. But the culprit that was fouling things up the most - in over 40 percent of the cases - was fecal coliform.

"Fecal coliform can include organisms from the digestive tracts of lots of different animals," said Dr. Lucy Sonnenberg, Director of the Millar Wilson Research Lab at Jacksonville University. She said FDEP has new methods that will better identify whether bacteria is coming from humans or animals - which will help officials determine how to stop it.

"We’ve done all the obvious things," Sonnenberg said. "To clean it up further we either need to get better information or spend lots and lots of money taking measures which may or may not be successful."

Sonnenberg said there’s been a lot of effort to removing the sources of fecal coliforms, and some success. But agencies still haven’t been able to get it down far enough to meet the standards of the Clean Water Act.

"At this point," Sonnenberg said, "rooting out problem septic tanks will likely get the city the most bang for its buck."

You can follow Peter Haden on Twitter @HadenMedia.

Peter Haden is an award-winning investigative reporter and photographer currently working with The Center for Investigative Reporting. His stories are featured in media outlets around the world including NPR, CNN en Español, ECTV Ukraine, USA Today, Qatar Gulf Times, and the Malaysia Star.