(Above) The issue of septics versus sewers packs the house at the Captiva Community Center. (Below right) Jay Brown and Douglas Eckmann listen as Captiva Community Panel President David Mintz fields questions from the audience. (Below left) James Evans, Sanibel’s director of natural resources, and Mark Thompson, research associate for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation, listening to the discussion about sewers versus septics on neighboring Captiva. SC photos by David Rohn
(Above) The issue of septics versus sewers packs the house at the Captiva Community Center. (Below right) Jay Brown and Douglas Eckmann listen as Captiva Community Panel President David Mintz fields questions from the audience. (Below left) James Evans, Sanibel’s director of natural resources, and Mark Thompson, research associate for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation, listening to the discussion about sewers versus septics on neighboring Captiva. SC photos by David Rohn

The head of an engineering firm hired to look at Captiva’s options for dealing with its wastewater said there is not much difference in the long-term costs facing island residents for hooking up with Sanibel’s sewer plant, expanding the South Seas sewer plant to serve the entire island or upgrading the aging septic systems serving about half the island.

What jumped out at us is that the costs are about the same no matter what you do,” Douglas Eckmann, chief operating officer of the consulting firm TKW, told a packed audience at the Captiva Civic Center Wednesday evening (Jan. 23).

He added, “The cost might not be the overriding factor. Other factors, such as water quality might be.”

Those estimated annual costs over the next 20 years for homeowners, according to the TKW study, would be:

  • Upgrading existing septic systems to new advanced septic systems — $800 a year in maintenance expenses plus $3,330 a year for installing a state-of-the-art septic system.

  • Expanding the South Seas sewer plant to serve the entire island — $1,060 a year in annual maintenance costs plus $3,400 in amortized annual costs for expanding the plant and hooking households up to it.

  • Hooking up Captiva to Sanibel’s sewer plant — $778 a year in sewer charges and $3,000-$3,500 a year in financing costs to hook up to the plant.

TKW was hired by Lee County to help the Captiva Community Panel’s Wastewater Committee look at the island’s options for dealing with its sewage.

Jay Brown, chairman of the committee, stressed that the Panel was still in the beginning stages of exploring its options and that the TKW report was merely a conceptual study of the alternatives, not a final engineering study that could itemize all of the costs involved.

Stressing that the Panel was merely looking at the various options for the island, he added, “I’ve got no dog in this hunt. I’m not advocating for one alternative or another.”

Brown also stressed that if the Panel ultimately recommends hooking Captiva up to the South Seas or Sanibel sewer plants, more than half of the island’s affected residents would have to approve the plan and its financing in a referendum.

But Brown clearly indicated that although studies done nearly a decade ago showed no major pollution problems in waters surrounding Captiva other than elevated nitrogen levels, with water tables only 2 to 3 feet below grade and the island having an elevation of only 4 feet, rising sea levels are all but certain to affect the aging septic systems that serve 40 percent of the households on Captiva.

He later remarked, “Long-term, it’s unsustainable to keep existing septic systems.”

Panel President David Mintz echoed Brown’s remarks, stressing that the Panel was looking at a 20- to 30-year horizon and at a host of water quality issues from the water in the streets after a rainfall to offshore water quality, algae and red tide, sea-level rise and long-term economic issues.

Noting that areas such as Miami and Naples are facing immediate replacement of their aging septic systems, he added, “We have an obligation to make sure we don’t face a crisis when it is too late to do anything about it.”

Mintz also pledged the Panel “was committed to full transparency” in its deliberations about the issue.

According to the TKW study, only 22 percent of the septic systems on Captiva are newer “secondary performance” systems that remove most pollutants.” Even “advanced” experimental on-site septic systems such as ones being installed in the Florida Keys are not as good as newer advanced sewage treatment plants such as the Donax facility on Sanibel at removing pollutants.

Eckmann noted that 73 of the septic systems on Captiva have no permits, and there is no regulatory system to ensure any of the island’s septic systems are inspected regularly or working properly. Septic systems also are susceptible to power outages, storm surges and sea-level rise.

Expansion of the older South Seas sewer plant to increase its capacity from 200,000 to 400,000 gallons per day would still leave the island without an advanced sewage treatment plant. Eckmann also indicated that the site of the existing South Seas plant is subject to hurricanes and sea-level rise, and potential mandates that it become an advanced treatment plant could add $4.5 million to the projected cost of expanding it to serve the entire island.

According to Eckmann, homeowners with septic systems would face expenses of about $5,000 to replumb their property to hook up to main sewer lines if connecting to either the South Seas or Sanibel sewer plants, as well as expenses of $2,000 to remove their old septic systems.

Commenting on potential traffic disruption for running a main sewer line down the island, Eckmann said it would be possible to tunnel under the road without tearing the road up, adding that the project also could be done in stages to minimize disruption.

James Evans, Sanibel’s director of natural resources, said Sanibel will begin construction of its new advanced sewer plant next spring and predicted it would have the capacity to handle sewage from Captiva, as well as Sanibel.

He urged Captivans to “let the science and cost-benefit analysis drive your conclusions.”

Islanders posed numerous questions, including whether those who have paid for package sewer plants would be forced to bear the expense of hooking up to either the South Seas or Sanibel sewer plants (maybe), whether the state was apt to mandate conversion to sewers (unlikely), how obtrusive lift stations might be (not that bad), and whether only registered voters could vote in referendums on whether to hook up to sewers (all affected property owners will have a vote).

Brown said further study on the wastewater alternatives will include a detailed look at whether septic systems are impacting health or water quality, when and how will sea-level rise impact septic systems, and whether long-term property values are at risk.

Mintz said the Panel also is looking what it might do by way of regulating existing septic systems on the island to inspect them regularly and ensure they are working properly.

According to Ken Gooderham, the Panel’s executive director, other communities in the state have instituted such inspection programs using existing inspectors. But he warned that it is a multi-step process that would require approval and involvement by county officials.