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Fixing Jacksonville’s Septic Issues Would Cost $3B

JEA workers digging into the ground outside a home, replacing pipes
Peter Haden
/
WJCT News
JEA workers connect a home to a sewer line in 2014.

Amidst a city phase-out, Jacksonville residents still have approximately 65,000 septic tanks and 35,000 private wells on their properties.

While around 42,000 of the septic tank systems are working well, Hai Vu, the interim GM of JEA’s water and wastewater systems, told a City Council committee Monday that the other third of the septic tanks need to be replaced to prevent leakage and groundwater contamination. 

JEA has pinpointed 35 areas of the city where septic systems should be replaced, according to Vu. 

“These are the top priority areas,” Vu said. 

However, the funding to replace them isn’t there.  

Today, septic replacements are already underway in parts of the neighborhoods of Biltmore and Beverly Hills, with an estimated price tag of $60 million.

“The issue here is that we have a total of about slightly over $54 million in committed funds for these three projects,” Vu said.

JEA had another septic project planned in Christobel, but it’s currently halted because the public utility can’t find funding sources. 

To complete all 35 projects using current methods would cost close to $3 billion, Vu said. 

The cost to replace a system in each household in the Biltmore project is about $53,000, which Vu said is “not sustainable.” 

Councilman Ron Salem said he questions if it’s even worth replacing septic systems for houses in some areas.

“It just blows my mind that we're spending those kind of dollars hooking up water and sewer to a home that's worth less than what we just spent to hook it up,” Salem said. 

Vu said local, state and national public funding for septic phase-outs can be difficult to receive.  He told the City Council’s Transportation, Energy and Utilities Committee other regions have funded septic tank phaseout programs by charging customers for the service, or through ad valorem taxes. 

The need to replace older, outdated septic systems is both environmental and health-related. If a septic tank leaks, it can allow nitrogen and fecal matter into waterways and groundwater supplies. 

If a family is using water that is contaminated, it can significantly negatively affect their health  as well. 

To determine which areas need help the most, Vu said JEA looks at factors including future sea level rise, as well as the topography of the area and customer use. 

To cheapen the cost, Vu said JEA is coming up with a master plan that includes alternative methods to replacing all of the faulty septic systems with conventional gravity systems. 

A full alternative plan is on schedule to be completed by May 2021. 

“Grants, federal grants, state grants,” Salem said. “Those are great sources of potential revenue, but I think it's going to take something much larger than that.”

Vu said it’s important to note that the homeowners aren’t the only ones being helped when new wastewater systems are put in place.

“Also the nearby land owners, the users of the waterways, the existing wastewater customers, in that eliminating the septic tanks will help protect the water supply, [and it] will probably help reduce the fixed cost of the wastewater treatment plants, depending on the situation,” Vu said.

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.