Water Sustainability Success Under Pressure

trees and lake

Revitalizing One of America’s Most Endangered Rivers with All-Terrain Sewer Technology

By Joseph Harmes

It was almost like the bountiful Schooling Bass were beaching themselves into the flat-bottomed fishing boat this cloudless day when the blue hues of the sky and river almost matched and the euphoria probably rivaled that of Spanish admiral and explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés as he traversed the same vicinity 420 years earlier and proclaimed in his journal that the Río San Juan “seems to be full of goodly fish.”

“Hey guys, this is Amy Meyers, St. Johns River. We caught about 30, 40 bass today,” the angler broadcast on the “Randy Meyers Outdoors” YouTube channel in October 2016 as she hoisted two specimens, each measuring over a foot long. “We caught our limit.”

In the eyes of many, Randy Meyers enjoys an enviable vocation-advocation-passion symmetry. It can barely be called a “commute” between his job as general manager of the St. Johns River Utility, Inc. in Astor, Florida, and his boat and beloved fishing grounds. The main thing at stake for him these days is safeguarding this spot’s newfound water quality so, among its other blessings, he can keep casting for a trophy among the prize-winning species still to be caught around Astor — about 60 miles north of downtown Orlando — whose boundaries lie within the Ocala National Forest.

But barely 15 years ago, hardly a soul would have wanted to consume a fish plucked from Astor’s four-mile network of canals or this stretch under the utility’s purview of the 310-mile St. Johns River — Florida’s longest — and the longest river in the United States that generally flows north throughout its entire length, from the Vero Beach vicinity through central Florida to Jacksonville and its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean.

For the last 50 years the St. Johns River has been dying. Back then, Jacksonville “dumped 15 million gallons of raw sewage and 90 million gallons of industrial waste into the St. Johns River — every day — and thought nothing of it,” the local newspaper wrote.

“If you fall into the St. Johns, you’ll die of pollution before you drown,” former Gov. Claude Kirk (1967-1971) often repeated. Indeed, in 1971 Jacksonville’s health department warned swimmers that the river contained 27 communicable diseases.

Septic Flunks the Smell Test

Up and down the pine and palmetto-lined St. Johns, winding through or bordering 12 counties, even small, unincorporated areas like Astor, between Lake George (Florida’s second largest and the river’s widest spot) and Lake Dexter, were contributing to the many maladies of what is called Florida’s primary commercial and recreational waterway. As Astor’s residential and business development grew along its riverfront and canals, their individual septic tank drain fields — many times overwhelming small lots — became saturated and overflowed into the waterways.

Although its pocket-sized population of 2,500 (and approximately 1,500 septic tanks) consisted mainly of retirees, tourists, seasonal snowbirds and an “industry” reliant on fishing, hunting and boating, each household discharged about 100 gallons of wastewater daily into failing septic systems whose drain fields leached a high-nutrient pollutant called nitrate that threatened wildlife and fragile freshwater ecosystems like the river and its quiet hammocks, placid ponds, soothing creeks and foreboding swamps. Other areas along the St. Johns River reported that emissions from their own septic leach fields triggered massive fish kills.

When reporters from the Orlando Sentinel visited Astor in 1992, they found that “sewage bleeds into underground water, which blends with nearby river water.” One of those interviewed was W.O. Chandler, Jr., then the president of the board of directors of the Astor-Astor Park Water Association (changed to St. Johns River Utility, Inc. in 2003). “You know how deep I’ve got to put a shovel in the ground to find water?” Chandler asked the Sentinel. “Six inches. I can smell the sewage.”

A Flush and Forget Life Cycle

Theirs wasn’t an isolated problem. Florida has 2.6 million septic systems in operation — 12 percent of the nation’s total — which serve one-third of the state’s population. Current conservative estimates calculate at least 10 percent are failing.

A half-decade before the reporters came to Astor its leaders and residents already had identified their septic systems as a problem and in the early 1990s launched the exploratory phase of a financially feasible wastewater network capable of collection, treatment and disposal to replace each septic tank.

By 1999-2000, years of investigating funding mechanisms — and a greater push to obtain funds from a variety of sources — yielded enough money to construct a wastewater treatment plant and finance septic-to-sewer conversions for more than 600 residential and commercial customers.

Among the grants and loans: A $2 million grant and $2 million low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development; a grant in the amount of $2.5 million from the state of Florida; a grant of $1 million from the Department of Commerce Economic Development Association for commercial development along a state road; and, $750,000 from connection charges to be paid by customers receiving wastewater service during the first phase.

The total cost for Phase I was around $8.2 million, including almost $3 million for the wastewater treatment plant.

“The capital costs and annual operations and maintenance (O&M) costs for the system, coupled with the grants and low-interest loans, resulted in an average monthly rate of approximately $35.43 for 5,000 gallons of service,” said a Phase I analysis in Florida Water Resources Journal in 2001.

The funding requests to construct Phase II came faster and easier: A $1.6 million loan and $1,592,500 grant from USDARD; $1 million in appropriations from the state and another $750,000 in state appropriations for all three phases plus $812,500 in connection fees for a total cost of almost $5.4 million for 750 more connections.

Phase III, for 33 connections, counted a total project cost of $837,314 and was completed just before 2008 when the St. Johns was named one of America’s Ten Most Endangered Rivers. The Great Recession that year delivered a respite to the boom in human and septic populations in the river’s vicinity, heretofore contributing ever greater stress on the St. Johns.

Meyers says that after Florida’s cluster of hurricanes in 2004, they were told there wasn’t any money to finish Phase III. “One of our directors got the state rep to visit the utility and showed him what we’ve done and said we just want to finish what we started. We were able to get a $500,000 grant,” Meyers says.


Astor’s reputation as a bottleneck for the St. Johns River renders it a flood-prone area sitting only an average of 3 ft above sea level.

Effort Defines a Citizenry

“We’re kind of proud of our community for stepping up,” Meyers says. “It’s pretty crazy the amount of loan and grant money we got for a small community without a grant writer.

“Some people didn’t want [the septic-to-sewer conversion] because it’s a [financial] strain on them,” he says. “But we made it as cheap as we could. All of our grant money was handed right to our customers so we used that to help them get hooked up,” Meyers says. “We were able to do about $10,000 worth of work (the cost of each connection) that only cost our customers (each) $1,250 at that time because we passed all the grant money on to them.”

Astor lowered project costs in another unique way. The utility was federally tax exempt as a non-profit but still paid state taxes. Lobbying efforts changed that so it could purchase all equipment and materials tax-free.

“I’ve been around quite a few smaller communities who have applied and gotten financing for sewer improvements, especially around the waterways,” says Mike “Blitz” Biletzskov, sales manager for F.J. Nugent & Associates, headquartered in Sanford, Florida. “What I’ve found is there are agencies that are willing to give the money as long as the communities can show them a viable plan that demonstrates how they’re going to pull the greatest number of septics off of the map, basically, and convert over to some type of a sewage system, whether it be a low-pressure sewer or gravity. The availability of money is out there,” Biletzskov says.

Along the way, several events brought notice to Astor and the project. In 1998, President Bill Clinton designated the St. Johns as one of only 14 American Heritage Rivers (126 nominated) for its ecological, historic, economic and cultural significance. He did so despite a resolution passed by Florida’s House of Representatives not to include the St. Johns over fears of federal regulations and private property restrictions.

In 1999, before construction had begun, Astor was recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — one of only six cities in the nation — for its efforts in constructing a wastewater system to improve the environment. In 2001, when groundbreaking commenced, two engineers in Orlando wrote that Astor’s “experience illustrates that a small rural community with limited resources and funds can nevertheless work with the state, with federal officials, and with local communities to develop a cost-effective centralized wastewater system.”

Navigating an Array of Alternatives to Septic

Astor used the funding interim to research and visit sites employing every alternative to septic and analyzing — as well as the construction budgets — the advantages and disadvantages of each, with emphasis on the lowest life cycle costs and O&M outlay. Under consideration were conventional gravity sewers, septic tank effluent pumping (STEP), vacuum sewer systems, small-diameter gravity (SDG) systems and low-pressure sewers powered by grinder pumps.

Each technology was measured against the challenges of Astor’s 24.5-square mile service area: High groundwater tables and poorly drained soils, periodic flooding, elevations, diverse and far-flung population densities, coordination with regulatory agencies, the protection of its share of the 1,000 identified archeological sites in Lake County and environmental concerns ranging from the national forest to wildlife habitats including osprey (Astor’s mascot), egrets, water turkeys, black bears and some rare Florida panthers.

Throughout the state, water below and above ground is the constant challenge for any sewer system.

Septic achieved its one-third market share of Florida’s wastewater infrastructure — highly disproportionate in comparison to most states — for diverse reasons. Post-World War II, a huge chunk of Florida’s business model has leaned heavily on new arrivals, retirees and tourists who in turn are reliant on habitational construction. For decades, Florida’s builders have depended on the cheapness of septic which only in recent years has come under local and state scrutiny and regulation.

Florida’s Topography Hinders Gravity Sewers

A significant portion of Florida is built on two types of terrain: Low-lying land with high water tables, like Astor, or bedrock of limestone and coral.

Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys, for example, sit on the latter. But as Miami Beach is discovering, streets aren’t flooding almost daily because of rain. They are submerged even during the dry season as water percolates up through the porous limestone, creating an almost year-round problem of inflow and infiltration of groundwater into its sewers.

Florida is also plagued with leaky and deteriorating sewers. Areas with gravity systems already vulnerable to flood-related issues after normal rain events became exceptionally jeopardized during Hurricane Irma.

In Seminole County, Winter Springs contended with more than 20 lift stations that were damaged and without power. Another Seminole sewer spilled two million gallons of sewage. In Volusia County (which neighbors Lake), officials asked residents connected to the city sewer to refrain from adding wastewater to the sewer system by avoiding showering/bathing, doing laundry or flushing toilets. Boil water notices were issued throughout the length of the peninsula. The national media had a field day with headlines like “Florida’s Poop Nightmare Has Come True” and “Irma Leaves Florida Streets Flooded with Raw Sewage.”

Draining the Swamp

Excavating bedrock is expensive and deep trenching wrecks landscapes. But those hurdles might be considered almost negligible in comparison to engineering earth removal and constructing a large diameter gravity sewer in areas of high groundwater — whether seasonal or year-round — like Astor where dewatering is required.

“With gravity, you have to have a dry ditch to build. In Florida, the water table sometimes is literally one shovel down and you’re in the water certain times of the year,” says Meyers.

Creating a dry environment to install pipeline, Meyers says, would have required trenches 15 to 20 ft deep (gravity sewers are traditionally 10 to 12 ft deep) and almost equal in diameter. “The ditches can get so wide you need other ditches,” he adds.

“If you’re on or near a river, dewatering can double, triple the project [cost]. It’s the most expensive part of it,” Meyers says. “It just wasn’t feasible. It wasn’t going to happen. Not in this area. The dewatering alone would have been more than our whole project ended up.” In addition, the topography and scale of Astor’s service area would have required that the conventional system incorporate a significant number of expensive lift stations, plus their 24/7 electrical demands.

grinder pump

Low pressure sewer systems begin at a grinder pump, which accepts wastewater and grinds its contents into fine slurry and transports it through small diameter PVC pipes.

A Cost-Effective, Turn-Key Solution

At one point in their research, Meyers and Chandler visited a low-pressure sewer project in Georgia installed by Environment One Corp. (E/One) of Niskayuna, New York, which developed the residential grinder pump in 1969.

“What they saw was, roads that would typically flood during high rain events weren’t flooding anymore,” says Joe Clark, a regional manager for E/One in Florida and the Southeast. “With septic you have drain fields, so eliminating those drain fields with a low-pressure system actually dried the area — where, typically, if you had a full day’s rain and there would be a street that flooded, now it takes a three-to-four-day rain event to actually flood that same street.”

E/One, the industry leader, has installed more than 500,000 grinder pumps powering its ALL-TERRAIN SEWER (ATS) on almost every continent, in every terrain and climate condition, serving over one million end-users daily.

Notwithstanding, E/One has almost a half-century of waterfront experience around the globe, including the Florida Keys where E/One is providing more than 3,000 grinder pumps anchoring an ATS throughout the 110-mile island chain where for decades they’ve serviced Key West’s famed Mallory Square and the U.S. Naval Air Station. Now, the ATS extends to trophy homes on Key Largo’s Millionaires’ Row, the renowned Dolphin Research Center of Grassy Key and even remote No Name Key.

But on some keys still awaiting the septic-to-ATS conversion, post-Irma was business as usual. As one resident on hard-hit Big Pine Key told CNN, “There’s homes blown off the stilts. Septic fields flooding. It’s just terrible.”

The heart of the ATS begins with a tank about the size of a dishwasher that is buried in the ground, often in the same footprint of a decommissioned septic system. Interior components include a one-horsepower, semi-positive pump that grinds waste into fine slurry. Its robust torque can propel the liquid through the inflow-and-infiltration-free pressurized 2- to 4-in. pipe for a distance of almost two miles — even uphill — to a force main or treatment plant.

In a cost analysis, E/One’s ATS — for Phases I and II of Astor’s project — was budgeted around $11 million, less than STEP or vacuum systems and far cheaper than the $18 million (plus dewatering) estimated for conventional gravity. The SDG system was discarded because of its limited use in the United States. Although pioneered in Australia, it quickly is being replaced there by the E/One ATS. In a project outside Melbourne, South East Water teamed with E/One for a 16,500-pump project in Mornington Peninsula, the world’s largest low-pressure sewer network.

The ATS dovetails nicely with Astor’s natural features and other requirements. In Florida, where there is no frost penetration, the ATS pipes need be only 18 to 24 in. deep — whatever is required to protect them from mechanical damage. In Astor, like most locations, they were installed by horizontal directional drilling resulting in minimal damage to fragile environments and ecosystems. Dewatering is not required.
The ATS is constructed of PVC pipe with solvent-welded joints and leak tested to the same AWWA standards used for potable water supply. It is water-tight and virtually leak-free. This eliminates most infiltration problems so characteristic of gravity sewers. Since there are no elements corresponding to access manholes, the inflow from street runoff is also virtually eliminated. When per capita contribution falls in the range of 30- to 70-gal/cap/day — if infiltration and/or inflow is rigorously excluded — this has profound and obviously desirable effects on treatment plant capacity, cost and performance.

grinder pump

Astor opted for grinder pumps with 150-gallon tanks (about 3-4 days of storage) for residences and 500-gallon capacities for restaurants.

High Water Wasn’t Hell

Astor’s reputation as a bottleneck for the St. Johns River renders it a flood-prone area sitting only an average of 3 ft above sea level. Its E/One ATS has weathered every major flood for 15 years from an unprecedented hurricane season in 2004, Tropical Storm Fay in 2008, Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017 when water levels in Astor reached never-before-seen heights and threatened every structure from mobile homes to million-dollar-plus mansions.

The E/One grinder pump addresses the issue of power outages after casual or catastrophic storms through the use of the tank’s storage capacity and ease of an electrical generator connection inherent in the alarm panel’s design.

In anticipation of periods when homes and businesses might lose power for days, or even weeks, Astor opted for E/One grinder pumps with 150-gallon tanks (about three-to-four days of storage) for residences and 500-gallon capacities for restaurants.

When floodwaters overwhelm Astor, Meyers and three helpers have demonstrated their ability to pump down over 1,400 units on an as-needed basis as they reach the high-water alarm level during each inundation. In the early days, the utility techs hard-wired the systems with a “pig tail” so they could bypass the control panel and plug a generator in right at the grinder pump’s wet well. They made the connection in about one minute and then it took about 7-10 minutes to pump down each unit (pump out time 14 gallons/minute) and there were no reports of overflows, said an evaluation of low-pressure sewers by Stantec Consulting Services for Sarasota County in 2006, which scrutinized Astor’s ATS as a comparative case study.

They also instructed generator-owning residents how to pump them down themselves. E/One’s Sentry line of alarm panels offers the option of an emergency power receptacle to easily connect a generator to the motor cable instead of having to remove a grinder pump station’s lid.

“We own all the pumps, we maintain all the grinder stations and we are on call 24/7, we send guys out,” says Meyers. “We have a lot of people who can’t pay to repair it. We take care of them all and we just incorporate it in our rates as a whole,” says Meyers, who estimates O&M costs of about $60 to $120 per pump, annually.

“His crew and Randy have gotten everything down to where it’s a fine running machine. They’ve made all the mistakes. They fine-tuned everything so they know how to operate a low-pressure system, the do’s and the don’ts of it. They’re probably the poster child,” adds Biletzskov.

Keepin’ Submerged Pumps Pumpin’

When power remains available, Astor has seen E/One pumps continue to operate normally even when covered by flood waters for a sustained period of “three weeks, probably longer,” Meyers says. “Some were 2 ft underwater. These people never lost their sewers. One place, the pump stayed underwater for probably two months and those people were able to use their toilets, take showers, where of course if they’d still have been on the septic system they wouldn’t have been able to use that,” he adds.

“You can plan ahead” in flood prone areas, says Biletzskov, who has a long-running association with the Astor project. “Although the pumps are impervious to water, the basins need to be vented. Typically, in a flood area, that vent may be 18 in. or it could go up the side of the house venting up as high as the roof line. It just depends on what’s called for, what area. If it’s not in a flood area, each has a small mushroom vent or some type of low-profile vent that sits three to four inches off the ground.”

A Fishtitious Upshot

Today, the St. Johns River Utility service area is septic-free. As it’s hemmed-in by the Ocala National Forest, new construction will be limited with only a riverfront condo project on the horizon, and it will be required to connect to Astor’s ATS.

“If you are within 300 ft of a wastewater line you have to do mandatory connection. That’s state law,” says Meyers. “Lake County says if it’s within 1,000 ft, it is required to tie in to the wastewater system.”

Surveying riverfront homes and their front yard docks from his boat, Meyers smiles and says, “A lot of people were thrilled to get a wastewater system, especially people on the water and you have all these homes here, all these connections on the water, no seepage eventually getting into the river. That goes to zero with a low-pressure system, so that’s the nice thing about it for sure.”

After a decade, Meyers notices other benefits. The water is regaining transparency and he’s observed a return of several species of fish which hadn’t been seen in years.

“In the last five years the river’s really come back,” Meyers says. “Now we’re kind of a show place.”

Joseph Harmes is a freelance feature writer and frequent WF&M contributor who has covered the water/wastewater sector, including the evolution and acceptance curve of low-pressure sewer systems, for two decades. He has profiled the Western Hemisphere’s largest low-pressure sewer system, among many other innovative projects in this area including the revolutionary technological innovation for pressure sewer systems allowing utilities to control thousands of pumps in massive installations.

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