Pensacola, Florida
Sunday June 16th 2019


Wastewater Sound

By Jeremy Morrison

Local beaches serve as Northwest Florida’s economic and cultural lifeblood. Postcard scenes of white sand and sunshine inspire people to soak in the salt while watching sparkles of light splinter diamonds into shards atop the water’s surface.

But visitors to Navarre have another element in this postcard-perfect scene. They can’t see it, or likely even smell it, but it’s out there in Santa Rosa Sound—sewage.

Santa Rosa County has long used the Navarre Beach Wastewater Treatment Facility to release treated wastewater effluent into the sound. And county officials have often discussed the need to change this. That discussion will likely continue for at least another five years, as Santa Rosa County Board of County Commissioners currently seeks to renew its current wastewater permit.

Before the Florida Department of Environmental Protection grants the Navarre facility’s wastewater permit, the public will have a chance to weigh in on the matter. During a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, March 26, folks will be able to discuss with DEP representatives the specifics of releasing wastewater into the sound, as well as potential alternatives to such a practice.

Long-Term Goal
Imagine a world where we didn’t release treated sewage into our surface waters. It’s a beautiful place, where your thoughts aren’t consumed with ickiness when you want to go for a swim.

This imaginary realm is the United States in 1985 as envisioned by the Clean Water Act of 1972. In 2019, this world remains an environmental dreamscape.

“We’ve been working towards that goal for years, if not decades,” said Santa Rosa County Commissioner Lane Lynchard.

But reworking Navarre’s current wastewater infrastructure is an expensive target. It requires routing wastewater north through underwater piping and disposing of it through a land-based application.

“This is an issue that we’ve been trying to get our hands around for many years,” Lynchard said.

But, the commissioner stressed, it’s not as if the county is taking the equivalent of a municipal dump in the sound.

“It’s not sewage or anything close to that that is being put into the sound,” Lynchard said. “This is treated effluent.”

That’s true. The wastewater released into Santa Rosa Sound, more than a half million gallons a day, is treated to federal and state standards. According to FDEP spokesperson Brandy Smith, wastewater facilities that discharge into surface waters are subject to the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System program requirements outlined in the Clean Water Act.

“These regulations establish water quality standards that are protective of public health and the environment,” Smith explained.

But such regulations don’t appease people like Frances Dunham. The longtime south Santa Rosa County resident and environmental advocate is concerned that releasing wastewater into the sound, treated or not, is harming the environment.

Dunham—who co-founded Santa Rosa Sound Coalition as well as Citizens Against Toxic Exposure—is concerned about things like nutrients in wastewater impacting water quality and triggering outbreaks of red tide or blue-green algae.

“You’ve probably seen that both—especially the blue-green algae—can cause serious human health impacts,” Dunham said. “Santa Rosa County can’t assume that our area is magically immune to what happened last year in other parts of Florida. There were severe economic declines where red tide and blue-green algae appeared. Surely, we don’t want residents and tourists to face smelly, slimy and dangerous conditions when they’re near the water.”

And then there’s all the stuff that wastewater treatment processes do not address and that environmental regulations don’t address.

“No one even tests, much less regulates, sewage effluent for many contaminants—medications like estrogen or Viagra, oven cleaners, pesticides, furniture-stripping products, finishes, flame retardants,” Dunham noted. “Most people would be shocked to know what they may be swimming or fishing in.”

And then there’s the risk to the area’s seagrass beds, which are necessary for a thriving marine ecosystem.

“Like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, Santa Rosa County can’t have seagrass benefits if we continue to damage them,” Dunham said.

But Smith maintained that Santa Rosa’s release into the sound was safe. Routine water-quality reviews are conducted, she said, to ensure that the discharge is not damaging animal or plant life.

Based on tests conducted in 2017, the FDEP found nothing worrisome about the wastewater released from the Navarre facility.

“The nutrient and algal growth potential values indicate no detectable nutrient enrichment in the receiving water due to the effluent, and there is no evidence of an impact on the macroinvertebrate community,” Smith explained, noting that the agency is inclined to issue the county a permit renewal based on the data.

Public Input
Last summer, local environmental advocate Christian Wagley of the Gulf Restoration Network started pushing for people to contact FDEP regarding the permit renewal for the wastewater facility in Navarre. He encouraged them to request that county officials specify a date certain for ceasing releases into the sound as a condition of the renewal.

“We just really wanted to force the conversation,” Wagley said.

The FDEP has scheduled a public meeting for 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 26, at the Tiger Point Community Center in Gulf Breeze, where people can speak with agency representatives about the wastewater release issue. The agency will take any public comments gathered during the event into account when considering Santa Rosa’s renewal request.

But Lynchard doesn’t see the county staking out any date certain for stopping the practice of releasing wastewater into the sound.

“I think we’ll get there, but I don’t think the county is in a position to commit to a date certain,” the commissioner said. “We will stop the discharge of effluent into the sound. It’s just not something that’s going to happen overnight.”

Lynchard pointed to $5.5 million of RESTORE funding—money stemming from environmental penalties related to the 2010 oil spill—the county will eventually see, which will cover the design portion of a more massive project to relocate Navarre’s wastewater release. The plan calls for rerouting the wastewater to land on Eglin Air Force Base, but it’s got a hefty price tag attached.

“Our best estimate to date is it’s about $18-$20 million. That’s the reason it hasn’t been done already,” Lynchard said.

Until Santa Rosa County tackles this issue, the commissioner points out, it’s not alone in its release of wastewater into surface water.

“It’s not unique to Navarre Beach,” he said. “Pensacola Beach, they’re in the same shape we are.”