Sarasota County is under fire for the massive amount of treated wastewater that has spilled from its Bee Ridge treatment facility into local waterways. Three nonprofits have told the county they plan to sue if it cannot figure out how to stop the spillage.
The issue, said Suncoast Waterkeeper founder and executive director, Justin Bloom, is much more complicated than just an overflow of wastewater.
Sarasota County’s issues are two-fold, he said.
"Part one is the collection system, which is in disrepair and spills sewage, particularly when it rains a lot,” he explained. “Part two is the reuse system. It’s not a problem with their capacity to treat gallons of sewage. They’re able to treat the sewage the way the treatment facility is designed. The problem is there’s not a lot of demand for the treated wastewater.”
Mike Mylett, division manager for water and wastewater for Sarasota County public utilities, said demand for reclaimed water is down because of a wet winter season.
“People aren’t irrigating as much as they normally do so there’s more reclaimed water (left over).”
Bloom, however, argues that the reason demand is down is more complicated than that.
“There’s so much nitrogen in this partially treated wastewater that the end users don’t want it,” he said.
He added that documentation shows Sarasota County’s treated wastewater has 18 or 19 milligrams per liter of nitrogen. He used other plants like the city of Sarasota's and Bradenton's as a comparison, both of which have three or less miligrams per liter of nitrogen in their treated wastewater.
“It is acknowledged throughout the scientific community that human sources of nitrogen significantly fuels red tide,” Bloom said. “So I'm making a connection between these failing sewage systems in Sarasota and throughout the region and increased nitrogen in our local waterways which fuels red tide."
This isn't the first time an area city has dealt with wastewater spillage into major waterways. In 2016 and 2017, the City of St. Petersburg was under scrutiny for the hundreds of millions of treated sewage waters that flowed into local waterways.
Stopping the Sarsota County spillage is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately, said Bloom.
He claims, currently, the Bee Ridge treatment facility is spilling multiple gallons of treated wastewater on a daily basis into a wetland that leads to Phillippi Creek.
A long-term solution is already underway, according to Mylett. He said the county is working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to install two aquifer recharge wells to hold excess water.
The wells will cost about $14.2 million, and Mylett said funds are already secured.
“It’s part of the utility rates. That’s a normal capital improved project budgeted item.”
As far as addressing how the wastewater is treated and the amount of nitrogen in it, Sarasota County has not made any public statements about if they will be making changes.
Bloom said the county would benefit from upgrading the treatment system sooner rather than later. Coastal areas like Sarasota, he explained, must get in front of water pollution in whatever way they can.
“We know how to keep this out of our streams and creeks and estuaries. It's expensive, but the technology is there. We're learning more and more about how (wastewater) contributes a significant amount - more than I think was originally realized - of polution, particularly nitrogen pollution in our estuaries.," he said. "We know how to fix it and the municipalities needs to step up and fix their systems.”