1.5 Deliver targeted education and incentives to the public to reduce sewage spills and overflows

Key Message: Disposal of inappropriate items such as baby wipes and kitchen grease down toilets and drains is a common cause of sewer blockages and overflows. Broken or leaking privately owned sewer lines are also a recurring problem, especially in older areas with aging infrastructure. Educating and incentivizing citizens to understand what can and cannot be disposed down toilets, sinks and drains, and the importance of maintaining their own lateral sewer lines, will reduce sewage spills and overflows that contribute nutrients and pathogens.

Importance

Disposal of inappropriate items down drains and toilets causes blockages in pipes, resulting in backups, line breaks and spills, and overflows of raw sewage into the environment. Broken or leaky private sewer lateral lines that connect private property to the public centralized sewer system can also release raw sewage into the environment. Moreover, broken laterals can allow stormwater and groundwater to enter and overload the sanitary sewer system, causing backups and overflows of raw sewage. Raw sewage contains microplastics, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, bacteria, viruses, and nutrients that can degrade water quality and harm environmental and human health. Educating and incentivizing citizens to understand what can and cannot be disposed down toilets, sinks and drains, and the importance of maintaining their privately owned laterals, will reduce sewage spills and overflows. Addressing proper use and maintenance of the sanitary sewer system will reduce the release of nutrients and pathogens into the environment.

Overview

Sarasota County experiences 100 reportable wastewater spill incidents each year from all causes — an average of one every four days (FDEP, 2019). Sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) are primarily caused by stormwater infiltration/inflow and line blockages and breaks (see Chapter 1.4).

Infiltration and Inflow

The sanitary sewer system in Sarasota County is not designed to transport groundwater and stormwater. During heavy rain events, these waters can infiltrate cracked sewer pipes and overwhelm system capacity, causing manholes to overflow and requiring emergency discharges at wastewater treatment facilities (WWTFs) (Figure 1.5.1). Stormwater can also enter and overwhelm the sewer system by inflow through unauthorized connections (e.g., yard and roof drains, and submersible pumps). The wastewater utility is responsible for maintaining pipes in the public system, whereas private citizens are responsible for maintaining pipes known as private laterals that connect their home or business to the central system. Property owners are largely unaware of this responsibility.

Infiltration and inflow can be reduced with regular inspection, rehabilitation, and maintenance of broken or failing infrastructure. Pipes installed for neighborhoods built in the early and mid-20th century were made from cast iron or tar-coated paper that has disintegrated over time (see Chapter 1.3).

Typical laterals run about 50 feet. With roughly 160,000 utility connections, there may be more than 1500 miles of privately owned sewer lines in Sarasota County. Replacing deteriorated or clogged pipes costs about $55-75 per foot, so the cost to a homeowner to replace a 50-foot lateral would be about $3,000.

Figure 1.5.1. Common sources of inflow and infiltration into sanitary sewers. Source: Regional Municipality of York, Ontario. york.ca

Line Blockages and Breaks

Line blockages and breaks can occur due to incursion of tree roots into lines or improper disposal of items such as fats, oils, and grease (FOG), trash, hand wipes and sanitary products. Blockages can produce backups into buildings and can also accumulate in sewer pipes as massive “fatbergs” that generate bottlenecks and cascading system failures.

Improperly flushed sanitary items cause massive clogs. Source: Sarasota County Government

To reduce SSOs, a Sarasota County Ordinance (Ord 2019-023) effective January 1, 2020 requires businesses that prepare or package food or beverages to operate grease traps and grease interceptors, maintain 3 years of quarterly maintenance records, and pay an additional monthly FOG program fee in their water and sewer bill.

Encouraging proper use of the sanitary sewer system by residents through education and outreach is a pressing need. The Tampa Bay area is leading with several public outreach initiatives such as the It’s a Toilet Not a Trash Can campaign and the F.O.G. Monsters campaign to keep fats, oils and grease from clogging pipes. The Tampa Bay Estuary Program is developing a bay area campaign to encourage homeowners to inspect and repair their private lateral lines. The Science and Environment Council and the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program have recently developed outreach materials on private laterals and flushables, although they have not yet been widely distributed (2019).

Educational outreach to the public on proper use of maintenance of sewer systems. Source: Science and Environment Council

To incentivize homeowners to do their part, some local governments have enacted ordinances that allow inspections and remediation of private systems if a problem is found. Some issue fines for sewage releases from privately owned sewer pipes. Sarasota County’s Water Pollution Control Code (Sec. 54-181-193) provides for enforcement of repairs to leaking lateral lines on private property. In practice, enforcement only occurs when citizens report suspicious conditions that can be investigated by County enforcement inspectors. The City of Gulfport offered residential sewer customers a 50% rebate, up to $3500, for lateral line inspection and repairs. The City of St Petersburg is developing an ordinance requiring homeowners to inspect, repair, or replace their sewer lateral lines. Before the ordinance takes effect, the city will test a pilot program that offers homeowners up to $800 to have their private lateral line inspected and up to $8,000 for any necessary repair work. Pilot neighborhoods were identified based on large variances in their wet- and dry-weather flows, suggesting the occurrence of inflow and infiltration.

Approach

Line blockages and breaks can be reduced through outreach and education about proper disposal of items in drains, toilets, and trash cans. A successful campaign could be designed and implemented by expanding upon existing materials from the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, Science and Environment Council, or Sarasota County Stormwater Environmental Utility, or by adapting materials from the Tampa Bay area to local audiences.

Infiltration due to cracked or leaking private sewer laterals can be reduced by education and incentives. Due to the cost, voluntary inspection and repair of private laterals is a tough sell likely to occur mainly during building renovations or to correct a problem discovered by a property inspection prior to sale. But, because broken private laterals can contribute to damages downstream in the public system, use of public funds may be justified to prevent those damages. An educational outreach campaign coupled with a rebate program could be targeted to neighborhoods where wet-weather flow is notably elevated and where backups and clogs routinely occur. Local utility fees could be utilized. Funding could also come from grants or low-cost loans from state water quality programs, or from state rebates similar to the one-time My Safe Florida Home program for hurricane wind inspections and improvements. Private insurance premium credits for inspected systems may also be an option. A bill considered in the 2020 Legislative session encouraged counties and municipalities to establish an evaluation and rehabilitation program for private sewer laterals, but did not pass.

Resources

Status

No Activity

Performance Measure

  • Number of participants in private lateral inspection program
  • Number of sanitary sewer overflows

Experts or Leads

Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida; Sarasota Bay Estuary Program; Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Program; Pinellas County Wastewater and Stormwater Partnership

Cost Estimate

$50,000-$100,000 educational campaign

$100,000-$1,000,000 incentives and rebates

Related Activities

Chapter 1.3, Chapter 1.4

 

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Other Wastewater Activities

1.4 Improve FDEP public reporting of wastewater discharges

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