Taking a Deep Dive into Florida’s Poop Problem

(Caution: this post is not for the faint of heart when it comes to reading about the realities of human waste).

 The proposed plans for wastewater disposal in Wakulla County ....

There are a lot of people moving to Florida from all over. They are obviously coming here to put down roots for different reasons: Some are retiring, while others are escaping the oppression of high-tax liberal areas of the country. Some are looking for economic opportunity. All want a piece of Florida’s sunshine.

Below are some personal ramblings about what to do with all the human waste created by 21+ million people in a State whose waters are not only iconic, but also a very big part of its identity. I am fond of reminding the Oyster Boss team that if Florida does not have clean water, it has nothing. Nothing.

 Let me start by asking anyone who might read this post to NOT be like me ... I spent the first 55 years of my life thinking and believing that once you flush it, it is GONE! Nothing could be further from the truth. I have no idea why it never occurred to me that the act of flushing a commode simply transfers my own waste from where my eyes can see it, to where that waste cannot be seen. Most importantly, it does NOT make what was in the toilet bowl disappear. You see, it simply transfers that waste from one place to another. Since only a few of us are plumbers, we all need to understand how this works - from a plumber's perspective.

The convenience of modern plumbing has made it so easy to make our own little "problem" someone else's problem. Flush and forget. It never occurred to me - ever - that the waste was going somewhere, and that "somewhere" could impact somebody else.

For the last one hundred years in Florida, the "solution to pollution has been dilution". Our wastewater treatment plants were designed to get the "stinky stuff" out of the process, but left behind were chemicals that are very hard and very expensive to extract. So, the cheapest way to handle Florida's waste problem has always been to take care of the things that are most offensive, and then let "Mother Nature" take care of the rest.

Therefore, to keep from having to build re-engineered - super expensive - treatment plants (like the one that the City of Tallahassee installed for post-treatment of the leftover water from its treatment plant to fix the problems at Wakulla Springs), we, as the citizens of the State of Florida, simply dispensed our partially treated wastewater into the most convenient creek, bay, river, canal, spray field or ocean -- letting the solution to pollution become dilution.

Then came the day when Mother Nature could no longer handle the excess ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorus that we were pumping in. With nature out of balance, noxious weeds, invasive plants and toxic algae took over. (The debate surrounded red tide is wrapped up into the mix as well, and red tide obviously speaks to degraded waters, but red tide is provoked by other chemical circumstances, not just human waste).

With give-or-take five million people clustered around the Orlando metro area, and with that area being a big part of the headwaters of the Kissimmee River, which is the primary tributary of Lake Okeechobee, and given our penchant as a State to do water treatment on the CHEAP, is anybody surprised that Okeechobee is not much more than a TOILET BOWL for central portions of the State of Florida? I am not.

And, let us stay right here on the Okeechobee issues for a minute:

  • Lake Okeechobee's issues are not being so much provoked like some in South Florida would have you believe by BIG AG, or BIG SUGAR, or BIG CATTLE RANCH, (etc.) Okeechobee's issues are being created by BIG BUTTHOLE -- and all the residual chemicals (ammonia, phosphorus, and nitrogen) that are left over when our Florida treatment plants are "finished" with the treatment of our toilet water. Who is BIG BUTTHOLE? You and me: my butthole, your butthole, and everybody else's butthole. We all contribute -- sometimes a couple of times per day.
  • Okeechobee's issues are NOT just a problem for South Florida. While South Florida is ground zero what happens when your poop chickens come home to roost, it need not become the "poster child" for the results of our on-the-cheap-wastewater treatment. Why? Because the problems that occurred over the last few years in South Florida are going to become problems for ALL of us in the State of Florida. It is not a question of IF-- it is a question of WHEN.

So, what exactly would the citizens of Wakulla County like to do with our own poop? The way I am asking the question should point toward the answer ...

Can we ship it elsewhere to make it somebody else's problem? Answer: No.

Can we put the treatment plant outfall pipe over the nearest creek or backwater and just let Mother Nature take it from there? Answer No.

What we are going to have to do is:

1) elect courageous and smart leaders that can make the tough decisions to deal with the toughest problems.

2) pony up the money to STOP dealing with our own waste on the cheap (which means investing in facilities that take the residual chemicals OUT of the process).

3) recognize that there are going to be new neighbors moving in across the street or in the new neighborhood next door -- and be nice and "neighborly" to them.

4) take responsibility for getting it RIGHT -- for the first time in one hundred years.

I would like to remind anyone reading this post, that unlike a lot of the ignorance that I heard at this week's open forum in Wakulla when the public had a chance to speak, the water to be treated by the 100-acre artificial wetland that is being proposed is NOT smelly, dirty, or dangerous. It has NO odor. It simply has too much nitrogen and phosphorus for Mother Nature to adequately handle, without becoming a problem in local waters. The water to be treated by the facility would have - in times gone by - been released directly back into the environment in a creek or bay, thereby provoking environmental misery for anyone that happened to want to use that body of water or who lived nearby.

The water that will result by this process will be cleaner than drinking water standards, and will pose absolutely no danger to ground waters, springs, surface waters, residents of the wetland, humans who might live nearby or those who interact with those waters.

Take the time to examine the science, and if you have a better idea of how to deal with YOUR fecal waste, let us hear about it. You MADE IT, we all make it, now let us get smart about how we deal with it. It does not disappear; it simply becomes someone else's problem. The engineered wetland proposal is smart, and I believe it will be effective in its these two objectives: 1) disposing of wastewater without creating an environmental mess, 2) accommodating the growth that is obviously headed our way.

One last note: I could not help but notice that two of most vocal opponents of the plan who were in attendance for the meeting and were there to provoke opposition to the plan were the Damons. They happen to live on a spit of land surrounded on three sides by the waters of Oyster Bay, (a very pristine and important body of water at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico in Wakulla County). The County installed a sewer pipe right up to the edge of their property, making it convenient and easy for them to hook up to the county sewer system. They have instead chosen to continue using their ancient and antiquated septic tank, rather than connect to Wakulla County's "solution for dilution". That is amazing, and to me speaks the ignorance and intransigence of those who do not want to get their heads out of the "sand" as it relates to this State's big smelly problems. Do not be like me …. Take careful stock of your own contributions to the State’s water problems. And let me also encourage you to NOT be like the Damons, and try to hypocritically deny that you – TOO – are part of the problem.

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