By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Hillsborough County commissioners this month approved a grant agreement with Florida Department of Environmental
Protection to further septic to sewer conversion in the Gibsonton area.
“This conversion is going to allow us to improve the services for the residents in the area as well as protect our environment,” said Lisa Rhea, the newly hired director of Hillsborough County Water Services.
The grant for $20.35 million requires matching funds, for which “we are fortunate to have ARPA money available to create part of that match,” Rhea said. Congress passed the act to provide additional relief to address the continued impact of COVID-19 on the economy, public health, state and local governments, individuals and businesses.
At the Jan. 19 meeting of the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), Rhea said the conversion “will be created in four phases, with the overall budget estimate at this point of $62 million.”
That this conversion is necessary is not to be disputed, according to the director’s remarks.
“As I am sure you know from the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, septic tanks can have a huge impact on the environment,” Rhea said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022 appointed the advisory task force to aid the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in its work to protect, conserve and manage the state’s natural resources.
According to the task force’s consensus document dated Oct. 11, 2019, Florida’s more than 2.5 million septic systems treated approximately one-third of the state’s wastewater. Nutrients in the effluent from these systems contribute to the development and maintenance of harmful blue-green algae blooms. Moreover, the report found poorly functioning, failing septic systems “can contribute disproportionately to nutrient pollution and pose increased health risks.”
Commissioners Harry Cohen and Pat Kemp spoke in favor of septic to sewer conversion.
“This is not the sexiest thing in the world, but it is so important, and it makes such a difference, not just in people’s lives but also, as was well said, in our environment,” Cohen said.
Cohen moved to approve the grant agreement after raising the prospects of environmental damage should septic tanks “sit and fester.”
As a reminder, “every one of these septic tanks that is out there is its own little Piney Point, waiting to erupt and create major environmental damage, and some of these [tanks] have been around for years,” Cohen said. He was alluding to the April 2021 Piney Point wastewater leak in Manatee County, near the coastline of lower Tampa Bay.
“It’s really, really good that we’re able to clean up” these tanks, Cohen said, “because the cost of doing this for private citizens is usually way outside of what’s in the budget, and that means they just sit and fester.”
According to commissioner Pat Kemp, who seconded the motion for approval, septic to sewer conversion would affect some 25,000 residential units in the affected urban service area.
Long a proponent for communities lobbying for septic tank to sewer conversion, Kemp said, “It can really change the way a community can develop because it is not able to attract businesses that it would want or other opportunities when you don’t have your wastewater and sewage system.”
The motion passed unanimously.
Meanwhile, as director of water resources, Rhea oversees a department that provides drinking water and wastewater treatment service to unincorporated Hillsborough County. According to county officials, the department manages four water treatment plans, five wastewater treatment plants, a bio-solids facility and administrative and field support services.
The department oversees cooperative and capital improvement projects planned to accommodate long-term growth in southern Hillsborough County through 2040. This includes construction of a potable treatment plan near the intersection of Balm Riverview and Boyette roads. Substantial completion of that project is expected by 2026.
Also included is construction of a south county potable water transmission main from the Triple Creek area to Balm and Sun City Center, aimed to increase pressure and provide redundancy and reliability. In all, 11.5 miles of new pipeline have been slated for completion by early 2024.