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In Florida, Flushing the Toilet Is Threatened by Rising Sea Levels for Tens of Thousands of Homeowners
In Florida, Flushing the Toilet Is Threatened by Rising Sea Levels for Tens of Thousands of Homeowners
Jul 19, 2024 10:23 PM

A pedestrian walkway along the Miami River is flooded during a king tide, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Miami. Flooding threatens tens of thousands of septic tank systems in Miami-Dade County.

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

At a Glance

The state has 2.6 million septic tank systems, and more than 100,000 in Miami-Dade County alone.Higher sea levels mean the tanks won't work properly.Connecting the septic tanks to Miami-Dade's sewer lines would cost more than $3 billion.

The effects of rising sea levels, such as nuisance flooding, are pretty obvious above ground.

But lying just below the surface is a threat that could impact millions of people, especially those living along the country's coasts.

Higher sea levels threaten the systems that carry wastewater away from more than , according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

These homes use septic tanks that rely on dry soil to work properly. Higher water levels saturate the ground and make it impossible for the soil to filter waste from the water that comes out of septic tanks.

The problem is particularly acute for Florida, which has , according to the state's Department of Health. That represents 12% of all the septic systems in the U.S.

(MORE: Damage to Miami's Biscayne Bay Approaching Point of No Return)

In Miami-Dade County alone, where sea levels have already risen 4 inches since 1994, more than 105,000 residential properties , according to a county report.

More than half of those systems, 58,349, are periodically compromised during storms or wet years, the report said. By 2040, that number is expected to increase to more than 67,000.

“That’s a huge deal for a developed country in 2019 to have half of the septic tanks not functioning for part of the year,” executive director Rachel Silverstein told the Miami Herald earlier this year. “.”

The county says there are already almost 1,000 properties likely failing under current conditions.

Failing septic systems allow contaminated water to seep into groundwater supplies or wash into bays and rivers.

Biscayne Bay, the 40-mile-long estuary in the Intracoastal Waterway off Miami-Dade, is as nutrient-rich runoff causes toxic algae blooms and strangles seagrasses.

Doug Yoder is deputy director of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department. He told CNN the county has .

A temporary pumping station is set up along the Intracoastal Waterway to prevent flooding during a king tide, Saturday, September 28, 2019, in Miami Beach, Florida. Flooding threatens tens of thousands of septic tank systems in Miami-Dade County.

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

"This water management system is probably one of the most complex anywhere in the world," Yoder said. "We are in a place where the ocean is directly connected to our shallow groundwater system. As sea level rises, which it is clearly doing, it is going to affect our ability to both protect our drinking water supply and protect the built environment."

The county estimates it would take $3.3 billion to connect about 83,000 residential septic tanks to the Miami-Dade sewer system. Another $230 million would be needed for commercial properties, Yoder told the Herald.

Last week, the appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to make recommendations to fight cyanobacteria blooms in the state's waterways, suggested the state Department of Environmental Protection should be , the News Service of Florida reported.

“Clearly the county is facing a major system failure here. Septic tanks are already compromised and will continue to be even more comprised with sea level rise and they need to take rapid action to address this and make the system more resilient,” Silverstein said.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, .

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