Response to Hurchalla column in The Stuart News

Important to learn the other side of the story

Yesterday, August 29, The Stuart News printed yet another column by former county commissioner Maggy Hurchalla, this time lauding the use of septic tanks. Currents publisher, Barbara Clowdus, responds to Hurchalla’s column line by line in bold type as follows:

Hurchalla — Don’t believe myth about septic tanks and algae

Time to admit that septic tank effluent feeds toxic algae

Hurchalla — Septic systems have become the weapon of choice in the sugar industry’s war against Martin County residents who want to save our river. We want to clean Lake Okeechobee water and send it south. They want us to shut up.

Thousands of Martin County residents with no affiliation to the sugar industry recognize that septic tanks in our coastal environments contribute significantly to the pollution of our waterways and to our groundwater. That viewpoint is shared also by recognized experts on water pollution, including Dr. Edith Widder, founder of ORCA, and Dr. Brian LaPointe of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, who has conducted commissioned studies of Martin County waterways.

Hurchalla — When we get angry about toxic algae in the river, they say it’s all caused by our septic systems.

No, they make no such claim. The pollution in the St. Lucie River has multiple sources. The algae (and other pollutants) in Lake Okeechobee comes primarily from the north, which has been verified repeatedly by multiple sources. That algae in Lake Okeechobee was discharged into the C-44 at low levels, then exploded after entering the St. Lucie River and grew increasingly toxic as the water flowed east to the inlet. All of the statistics collected, regardless of by whom, verify that fact. It’s clear that our septic tank effluent fed that algae.

Hurchalla — Never mind that since 1982 Martin County has had the strictest limits for new septic systems of any county in the state and has fewer septic systems than any county on the Indian River Lagoon; or that the huge algae blooms started in Lake Okeechobee and flowed to the coast.

Martin County always followed the state standards for septic tanks, regulated by the state Department of Health, until Maggy rewrote our Comp Plan rules in 2014. The county’s Utilities Department had already begun to systematically remove the county’s package plants (large, on-site sewage treatment systems) in 1990. Martin County has fewer septic tanks on the lagoon than other counties, because it has fewer residents living along the lagoon than other counties, and because we don’t count those septic tanks in southern Martin County.

Hurchalla — It’s a handy weapon.

So, too, are distortions of truth masquerading as “facts.”

Hurchalla – Two years ago when Martin County commissioners further tightened the rules, Commissioner Doug Smith said it was unfair to limit what developers could do until all the existing septic systems in the county were connected to central sewer. The theory seemed to be, “You can’t close the barn door until all the horses are caught.”

Two years ago, when Hurchalla rewrote the Comp Plan, Commissioners Doug Smith and John Haddox pointed out that the intent of Hurchalla’s proposed legislation was not to protect waterways, but to strangle opportunities for agri-tourism or alternative revenue streams for our existing farms and businesses. Both commissioners said that the original intent of our Comprehensive Growth Management Plan was to manage growth, not to kill it, and particularly not by trampling on the rights of individual property owners. We need to take the protection of our waterways out of the political arena.

Hurchalla — Recently the rock-throwing about septic systems started again when some Sewall’s Point residents said they didn’t think sewer lines needed to be extended to their neighborhoods.

Curious – or convenient – that Hurchalla never considers her criticism of others as “rock-throwing.”

Hurchalla — This brought on accusations from sugar allies that the “coastal elite” were a bunch of hypocrites who like to blame others for their own environmental sins.

Hurchalla and her supporters always attempt to undermine criticisms by labeling the source as a “sugar ally,” thus somehow allowing her to ignore facts being presented by multiple, credible sources, even from the scientific community — unless she agrees with them.

Hurchalla — Are septic systems for single-family homes sinful? Some are. Neighborhoods with very small lots, very high water tables, high system failure rates and ditches that lead to our waterways are a real problem.


Hurchalla — Septic systems on large lots on high ground that are regularly maintained are not a problem. 

And how do you know they are being “regularly maintained”?

Regardless of how well maintained, septic tanks in a coastal environment will drain into the nearest waterway, some within days, others within weeks, an irrefutable fact. That’s just the way water flows. Septic tanks were not designed to remove all pollutants, only enteric bacteria and some phosphorous.

Hurchalla — The Florida Department of Health has never found high bacterial counts along the shoreline of Sewall’s Point.

They do not test along the Sewall’s Point shoreline, according to the Department of Health. They test the water around the Stuart sandbar, which we know has been closed often due to high enteric bacteria counts.

Hurchalla — There are up to 26,000 existing septic systems in Martin County. Hooking them all up would cost more than $400 million dollars.

These estimates are low because they do not include the southern end of Martin County, which is served by the South Martin Regional Utility. Others estimate the number of septic tanks in Martin County number around 36,000, when including the southern part of the county. The cost to convert is high, but can be spread out with planning and cost reduction through state loans and grants. It requires only the will of the people to make it happen. The cost due to the loss of our estuary and our reefs is far higher.

Hurchalla — People who can mentally walk and chew gum at the same time realize that problems with a lot of causes get solved by setting priorities.

People who can mentally walk and chew gum at the same time realize that problems with a lot of causes get solved by recognizing multi-faceted approaches are required with the precise planning found in the Integrated Delivery System, not by wearing blinders to all except the one path that obliterates all other paths and planning in order to fulfill the hidden agendas of the most powerful.

Hurchalla — There are good reasons why Sewall’s Point residents might want to hook up to central sewer, but areas with homes on large lots on high ground are not anywhere near the top of the priority list when it comes to cost-effective solutions. Creating a program to make sure all the systems were functioning properly and were regularly pumped might be far more effective in the dollar-for-dollar cost of keeping nitrogen out of the estuary.

No septic tank removes nitrogen, except the new, specially designed systems aimed specifically at nitrogen removal, and even those do not remove pharmaceuticals and toxic cleaners. Estimates to retrofit current septic systems to remove nitrogen range from $16,000 to $22,000 each. Did Sewall’s Point adopt any septic system regulations requiring pump-out schedules or inspections or mandatory conversion to nitrogen removal? Did they require even to have their older septic tanks retrofitted to install filters to keep their septic drain fields from clogging due to hair and use of garbage disposals? No; however, they took an important first step by choosing to convert from septic to sewer on the northern end and along A1A in their community. With grants and the state’s revolving loan program for household hook-ups, that may well be the most cost-effective alternative after all.

Hurchalla — Meanwhile, there are other sources of nutrient pollution and more cost effective solutions we need to pursue: The county needs to identify funding for extending sewers to high-priority neighborhoods. These are the areas that can least afford it.

That is currently underway, and thanks to the current county commission’s priority on cleaning waterways, the previous schedule of 20 years has been cut in half to 10 years for 24 areas of the county targeted by engineering studies for conversion.

Hurchalla — We need to keep the barn door closed and not continue to approve development that will require expensive future conversion from septic to sewer.

The county approved current developments — not new developments — to extend sewer lines AT THEIR OWN EXPENSE in order to eliminate the use of septic systems on their own property, which is a positive step in protecting our waterways.  

Hurchalla — The Commission’s recent vote to allow extra-large high-risk septic systems throughout the rural area is worse than a step backwards. It makes us look like stupid hypocrites.

No such thing was approved. The county commission majority approved a plan to consider up to 5,000 gallons a day only on a case-by-case basis. A blanket approval for larger septic tanks in agricultural areas does not exist. 

The state standard is a system that can accommodate a 10,000-gallon flow per day. These are not high-risk septic tanks. In fact, Hurchalla’s rewrite reduced the size of septic tanks for businesses and farms to that for residential properties, a 2,000-gallon-flow-per-day system. It is a far greater risk to the environment to push the capacity of undersized septic systems, than to under utilize a larger system. And, yes, many of us do look like stupid hypocrites, but it’s not those who advocate for conversion to central sewer.

Hurchalla — We need to make the state find a better way to deal with sewage sludge. Currently they are allowing big city sludge to be renamed “biosolids” and spread all over western Martin County. Agreed.

Hurchalla — The state needs to make best management practices for agriculture mandatory instead of voluntary.

That makes no sense when the best management practices adopted by the agricultural industry have demonstrated such phenomenal success. Making these practices mandatory requires hiring a flotilla of new inspectors and a fleet of vehicles, costing thousands in the short term, millions in the long term, with no obvious return on investment — because the voluntary practices are already exceeding mandatory goals. That money would be better spent on building the Central Everglades Restoration Projects, or the CEPP projects, or a host of others, including finishing the repairs to the Herbert Hoover dike and building a southern reservoir.

Hurchalla — When you look at the sources of nitrogen in our estuary, the vast majority is coming from the St. Lucie River and the C-23 and C-24 canals.

Exactly, and the septic tanks along all those water bodies currently in use do not remove nitrogen. The extension of a sewer line into the Seven Js industrial development – paid for by those businesses – would potentially remove more than 80 septic tanks on the banks of the C-23 canal, along with the toxic leachate from the Martin County landfill, yet that decision was assailed by Hurchalla and her supporters. 

Hurchalla — All of us need to do our part to cut down on fertilizer use. Those on septic need to make sure their systems are regularly pumped, inspected and updated.

“Updating” a septic tank costs more than connecting to a sewer line. Pumping out a septic tank every three years would need to be mandated by law in order to be effectual, yet we cannot even get a law passed that a septic tank must be inspected when a home is sold, much less every three years. And “updating” a septic tank to remove nitrogen is more costly than hooking up to a central sewer system.

As far as fertilizer, we need to learn how and when to properly apply fertilizer to ensure maximum uptake by plants, and how to keep stormwater on our own property, as does Kai-Kai’s 40-acre farm. If they can do it, we all can.

Hurchalla — But don’t believe the myth that our lost summers were caused by the sinful septic systems of the coastal elite.

Only Hurchalla perpetuates that myth.

Hurchalla — Don’t throw rocks at Sewall’s Point.

Sewall’s Point is on the right track, and we trust will continue to set an example for the rest of the county.

Hurchalla — Make sure we are doing everything we can not to make the problem worse.

Absolutely, including supporting our city and county commissions to further expand our central sewer systems.

Hurchalla — Implement cost-effective solutions locally. Demand that the state take action to make sure polluters pay to deal with the problems they cause.

We cannot very well demand that others deal with their pollution when we refuse to deal with our own.

Hurchalla — And keep on shouting that we need to clean up Lake Okeechobee water and SEND IT SOUTH.

Yes. We need reservoirs and stormwater treatment areas built to clean that water before it ever reaches Lake Okeechobee, so we can send CLEAN water south to the Everglades.

Hurchalla — Disclaimer: I do not live on Sewall’s Point. I have a septic system on a half-acre lot. It is well set back from the water. And how far is “well set back”? We get it pumped and inspected every three years. I will be happy to pay to hook up when Martin County provides sewer lines.

And in the meantime, should not the environmental icon of Martin County consider “updating” her septic system, too, instead of telling Sewall’s Point residents to “update” theirs?