Go Ahead, Abandon me!

Qualified homeowners may be eligible to connect to city sewer for free.

Through a grant, the City of Ocala is currently offering some home and property owners a chance to save thousands of dollars in expenses by abandoning their septic tanks before they fail.

To be eligible for the program, you must already have availability to connect to the city sewer. According to Rachel Slocumb, Conservation Coordinator for the City of Ocala Water Resources Department, there are about 500 Ocala households that qualify.

“Some residents may notice on their utility statement that they are paying a sewer availability fee,” she explains. “This fee does not mean that you are connected to city sewer, it just means you could be. If you do abandon your septic tank and connect to city sewer, then that fee you have been paying becomes your sewer base rate.”

The city has grant funding available in a Septic Tank Abandonment Program through which qualifying homeowners could make the switch, potentially incurring only minimal expenses, such as those involving laying sod or planting grass seed. However, should a qualifying consumer’s septic tank fail when grant funds are not available, the homeowner will be required, by city ordinance, to connect to the city sewer system if it is available to them, which might cost as much as $10,000.

The Septic Tank Abandoment Program in Ocala is partially made possible by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the City of Ocala through an agreement with the Nonpoint Source Management Program of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Amendments in 1987 to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act established the Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program to help state and local efforts. Grant funding can support activities such as financial assistance and education, which are the two primary objectives for the city program.

The current grant program, the third of which the city has administered to help reduce nutrient pollution, also has a goal of educating Ocala/Marion County residents about the importance of septic tank maintenance and how proper care can help the environment and the health of Silver Springs, Rainbow Springs and their respective springsheds. Someone’s actions within the springsheds, even if they live miles from them, can affect the quality of water flowing from the springs. FDEP estimates that up to 38 percent of the annual nitrogen input into either of the Basin Management Areas comes from septic tanks. Nitrogen fertilizes algae and, as it grows, the algae covers aquatic plants and the water surface and blocks out sunlight, which can kill plants and clog up fish gills.

One advantage of taking part in the city’s grant program is that any of those 500 households that do connect to sewer will contribute to the new Ocala Wetland Recharge Park, which helps reduce nutrient pollutants and other contaminants while also recharging the Upper Floridan Aquifer by more than 3 million gallons a day. Reducing nutrients and other contaminants helps improve the city’s impact on Silver Springs.

Slocumb explains the difference between point and nonpoint sources as: “Point source would be a stereotypical factory, or even our own Wastewater Treatment Plants. You could easily determine the exact type of pollution, and its source. Nonpoint source pollution is coming from a variety of locations, such as when brakes wear out on a vehicle and each braking motion sloughs heavy metals onto roadways, which then are washed into the aquifer via stormwater runoff. One of the best ways to educate yourself about nonpoint source pollution is to view the educational exhibits at the wetland park, which were funded through a separate FDEP 319 Nonpoint Source Pollution Grant. Each of the four exhibits covers nonpoint source pollution and the impact it can have on an environment. The largest take-away message is the maze featuring eight individual stations with each one explaining a different kind of nonpoint source pollution and how it negatively impacts the environment and what you can do to reduce the amount of pollution.”

Slocumb says septic tanks are a huge component of nonpoint source pollution and since most residents of Marion County do not have access to connect to sewer, knowing how to properly maintain a septic tank is one of the most important components in helping reduce pollution.

“As a septic tank owner, it’s important to realize that just because you’re not having a problem, doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. Most people categorize that as, ‘Oh, my septic tank is backed up,’ but if it’s backed up it means there has been a problem and now you’re seeing it being expressed in your home,” she explains.

Proper maintenance includes having the septic tank pumped and inspected every three to five years.

“It is basically a cement box in your yard and if you put stuff in that box that won’t break down, it eventually clogs up,” she states.

Among the many items that will not decompose inside a septic tank are fats, oils, grease, feminine hygiene products, contraceptives, large clumps of hair, facial tissue, paper towels and many products marketed as “flushable.”

“Having a septic tank is not necessarily a burden, but it is something you have to be very conscious of in terms of what are you putting down your drain, like bacon grease or cake frosting or dairy products,” Slocumb outlines. “If you can flush it down your toilet, technically it’s flushable, but many of these things just sit in the septic tank, which is decreasing the effectiveness of any nutrient reduction. And even the most effective septic tank will not denitrify (a microbially facilitated process to reduce the total nitrogen nitrates or nitrites) to the level in which a wastewater plant would.”

Slocumb says having a septic tank pumped and inspected might run in the neighborhood of $250 to $300, but if the tank fails you might be looking at paying a whole lot more.

“Calling an emergency plumber because of a sewer backup is both costly and not a simple fix. Because we live in Florida, and typically don’t have basements, sewer pipes are under the slab of our house, which now raises the difficulty and cost between $3,000 and $10,000 to repair,” she surmises. “We’re hoping to help homeowners who have availability get signed up for the program because a monthly sewer base rate of $25.96, plus maybe a consumption fee of another $25.96 each month, is still more affordable than having to replace your septic tank or drain field.”

It is also especially important to note that, “currently, if your septic tank fails and you have the availability to connect to city sewer, you cannot repair that tank, you are required to hook up to city sewer,” she explains. “Right now, we have a grant that will alleviate the financial burden on the homeowner and allow a contracted plumber to take care of everything. But if you wait, we may not have a grant.”

“We are all contributing to the negative impact on the environment,” she adds. “What can we do to reduce our impact? One way is by being proactive and signing up for a program like this and remove a large source of pollution in our springsheds.”

For those who qualify, and opt to preemptively abandon their septic tank, the city will come and destroy your old septic tank and backfill it with soil, at no cost to you.

The program is slated to be finished in June 2022, so Slocumb urges you get your application in as soon as possible.

To find out if you qualify for the grant program, contact the City of Ocala Water Resources at (352) 351-6772.

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