As Hurricane Ian plowed across central Florida at the end of September, the manager of a Port Orange wastewater facility was worried about what would happen when the storm forced wastewater to overflow from a four-mile pipe and into a nearby body of water. He was searching desperately for a chemical compound that would reduce harm to marine and human life. But there wouldn’t be any accessible for almost two more days.
“We tried other providers but they were strapped as well due to Hurricane Ian,” Chris Wall, manager of the water reclamation facility, said in a recent filing to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
The untreated wastewater overflowed from the site — accounting for just some of the millions of gallons of spills that have been reported around the state since the storm. In the weeks since Ian pulled away from the Sunshine State, city workers and concerned citizens have filed hundreds of pollution reports to the state’s DEP. Many of the most frequent in Florida were linked to sewage systems, which unloaded harmful bacteria and viruses for humans into waterways. Researchers say it could take months before the ocean flushes out the contaminated water.
“We knew that there was a large amount of sewage that was being released into the waterways, not just in one area, but in many areas,” said Jennifer Hecker, executive director of the Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Partnership (CHNEP), part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Estuary Program. “I’ve been working on this for nearly 30 years, and I’ve never encountered anything of this scale and magnitude.”
As more debris has cleared a month after Ian’s landfall, the CHNEP and its environmental partners have been able to take samples from watersheds, rivers and estuaries in southwest Florida to assess for common pollutants and bacteria. Still, Hecker said conditions in mid-October for sampling water were not ideal; some boat ramps had still been blocked and access to certain waterways remained difficult because of damage from the storm.
As of mid-October, the team had found numerous places where the water was six to 10 times the state’s safety threshold for the types of bacteria found in feces such as E. coli and enterococci. Those bacteria can cause urinary tract infections, life-threatening inflammation to the heart and other serious infections.
As of Nov. 1, microscopic algae called Karenia brevis (commonly known as red tide) were also present at high enough concentrations to cause respiratory issues for people in Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota counties, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“From Sarasota Bay south to Naples, levels of bacteria in the water are generally elevated and well above what the criteria are for bacteria in our in our waterways,” said Christine Angelini, director of the University of Florida’s Center for Coastal Solutions, which is one of CHNEP’s partners collecting data.
Additionally, she said an excess of nutrients and debris were depleting oxygen levels in major waterways, such as the Peace River, which could lead to massive loss of fish important for the state’s economy.
Ian’s torrential rainfall and historic storm surge strained sewage systems that were already vulnerable. Florida’s wastewater systems rely heavily on electric “lift stations” that pump wastewater from trenches about 10 feet deep up to surface-level plants that clean the water. These stations are inexpensive and use smaller pipelines at shallow depths.
“We don’t have a lot of topography,” said Sarina Ergas, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of South Florida. “It’s very flat.”
That’s why Florida needs to pump sewage to treatment plants.
But one disadvantage is that the pumps typically rely on electric power to run. In Ian’s wake, millions of Floridians were without electricity. If power supply is interrupted, the EPA said, it can “interrupt the normal operation” of the wastewater treatment and lead to flooding “upstream of the lift station.”
When Ian caused a power outage in the city of Maitland, just northeast of Orlando, the pumps couldn’t operate, creating high water volumes that the surrounding area couldn’t hold. As a result, 150,000 gallons of untreated wastewater backed up into water bodies.
Stations sometimes have backup generators, but federal incident reports filed shortly after Ian showed they aren’t always reliable. An auxiliary pump in North Fort Myers ran out of fuel, which took time to replenish due to debris from Ian. A backup generator in Tampa Bay shut off unexpectedly after running for several hours. Another near Orlando turned off just two weeks after annual preventive maintenance.
Some of the most severe damage came in the city of Bradenton. At a lift station, electricity from Florida Power & Light, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, failed. Then the backup generator failed too, “after an extended period of operation,” the city’s water company said. As the storm raged, 4 million gallons of untreated wastewater poured from the site into Wares Creek. Later, the company applied lime — which retains pollutants — and collected other debris.
The sheer size of Ian, which brought more than 20 inches of rainfall in parts of the state, makes it difficult to plan infrastructure that would be sturdy enough to withstand similar storms. John Shaw, an expert witness in courts and a consultant to municipalities about wastewater, said that a hurricane is “an inundation event you really can’t design for. Let’s just call it an act of God that exceeds the capacity of the [pumping] station. And you can’t design a facility that’s going to survive an act like that.”
Cities sometimes don’t enforce regulations of wastewater systems with rigor. A few months ago, the Suncoast Waterkeeper and other environmental organizations settled a lawsuit with the city of Bradenton for a history of sewage spills in the Manatee River long before Ian hit. The city has committed to upgrade the aging infrastructure, perhaps to bigger pumps, over the next three years using federal grant money.
“These are large municipalities with miles and miles of sewage lines that over the course of the last several decades have come into disrepair. They’ve got to put investments in upgrading them,” said Justin Bloom, the founder and board member of the Suncoast Waterkeeper.
Bloom thinks a lot of the water-quality issues post-Ian were “preventable” if there had been more regulation and enforcement of such systems. “In improving regulations, I think we need to anticipate more storms and more severe rainfall,” he said.
While he said there’s no “overnight fix,” Bloom hoped there could be improvements “by this time next year ... but it’s going to take a while.”
For the recovery of the immediate damage, researchers say the return to clean waterways depends on how quickly natural weather systems and ocean circulation can flush the contaminants from the rivers and estuaries.
“So much of this depends on what sort of weather conditions are in the weeks and months to come,” Angelini said. “We really don’t know what that end point is and when we will come back to more normal levels.”