Bernice Harper showed off her backyard on a recent afternoon, pointing to cherries and a cluster of fledgling fruit trees.
Like many West Augustine residents, Harper still uses a septic tank. Hers was installed in the ‘60s and is hidden underground with no mound in the earth announcing its presence like those on properties nearby.
She said she wants to hook up to the city’s sewer service because of the cost and effort of maintaining the tank. She’d also like to see her neighbors do the same.
“We need to get rid of these septic tanks out here, and they would have more room for their yard if they wanted to plant a garden,” Harper said. “[The tanks are] all over the place.”
A more than $1.3 million project that the Florida Legislature didn’t fund this year would have expanded sewer capabilities on Harper’s Street, West 5th Street, as a way to improve water quality by getting rid of septic tanks. Despite the rejection, officials are still planning on expanding sewer hookups in the neighborhood.
Septic tanks typically dispose of household waste via an underground tank and drainage field, and sometimes require a large mound in the property as part of the installation. The tanks are maintained by owners, which includes having them pumped every few years. They don’t require monthly payments to the city of St. Augustine utility, which serves West Augustine.
But lack of maintenance can cause problems.
“Every resident may not get their tank maintained, so it does create a health risk if you’re not being dedicated to maintaining that tank,” said Jaime Perkins, who grew up in West Augustine and was among those visiting in Harper’s backyard.
Perkins is also infrastructure chair on the steering committee for the West Augustine Community Redevelopment Agency, a state-regulated organization under St. Johns County’s management. The CRA uses property tax revenue to fund projects in West Augustine.
The CRA has made a number of improvements in the community over the years through crime-elimination efforts and infrastructure and housing programs. Traditional utility connections have also been expanded. Many people, though, are still on septic tanks either through choice or because of lack of access to sewer infrastructure, officials said.
Well-maintained septic systems keep waste from spilling onto lawns or getting into the community, but problems can arise when they’re not well-maintained, according to an email to The Record from Dr. Mary Lusk, a regional water resources specialist for the University of Florida.
Proper maintenance and inspections are the best way to keep disease-causing bacteria from reaching drinking water, she wrote.
“However, conventional septic systems (septic tank plus drain field) are not designed to remove the environmental pollutants like nitrate, and for this reason, many places in [Florida] are moving toward conversion to central sewer or are asking people to put in advanced systems that have greater capacity to treat nitrogen,” Lusk wrote.
Officials with the Florida Department of Health in St. Johns County inspect septic tanks once they’re installed, but generally in residential areas they don’t have the authority to do more inspections unless there’s a repair or complaints, according to an email from the department provided late on Friday. Still, the email added that there’s “no indication that the conditions in West Augustine are substandard.”
Harper told a different story.
“You have septic tanks in this area that overflow, and that’s a sanitary problem. … When the wind is blowing in certain directions, you can smell that foul odor coming from septic tanks that have overflowed,” Harper said.
The next steps for CRA officials include working with the city to develop a plan to expand sewer service house by house. The idea is to help residents pay for connecting to conventional sewer service, starting on W. 1st Street and then to W. 2nd Street and beyond, Perkins said. The CRA would like to use funds that the city of St. Augustine has created for West Augustine sewer expansion, a fund that now has a balance of a little more than $1 million.
CRA officials plan to talk with residents about the plan and gauge their interest in connecting to sewer, Perkins said. There are some properties on Duval and St. Johns streets where dozens of people have the ability to hook up to sewer but haven’t done so yet, said Martha Graham, city public works director.
Graham also added that First Street doesn’t have a main, so it’s not possible without the main for some residents to connect to sewer.
A couple of issues people consider with sewer are whether to add monthly bills as opposed to maintaining their own septic tank. There’s also the cost of connecting to sewer and getting rid of the old septic tank.
For Perkins, getting more of the community connected to conventional sewer service is personal because West Augustine is her home.
After the visit with Harper ended, Perkins walked along W. 5th Street near Duval Street, which she recalled was a dirt road when she was a teen.
“This is my home,” Perkins said, walking in front of a property with a septic tank mound. “I just want to see it beautiful.”