1.5 Deliver targeted education and incentives to the public to reduce sewage spills and overflows
Key Message: Disposal of inappropriate items such as baby wipes and kitchen grease down toilets and drains is a common cause of sewer blockages and overflows. Broken or leaking privately owned sewer lines are also a recurring problem, especially in older areas with aging infrastructure. Educating and incentivizing citizens to understand what can and cannot be disposed down toilets, sinks and drains, and the importance of maintaining their own lateral sewer lines, will reduce sewage spills and overflows that contribute nutrients and pathogens.
Update (December 2020): Multiple organizations have made progress in regulating or educating residential and commercial users to reduce the introduction of fats, oils, and grease (FOG) and other pipe-clogging items into sanitary sewer systems. See Progress section for details.
Disposal of inappropriate items down drains and toilets causes blockages in pipes, resulting in backups, line breaks and spills, and overflows of raw sewage into the environment. Broken or leaky private sewer lateral lines that connect private property to the public centralized sewer system can also release raw sewage into the environment. Moreover, broken laterals can allow stormwater and groundwater to enter and overload the sanitary sewer system, causing backups and overflows of raw sewage. Raw sewage contains microplastics, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, bacteria, viruses, and nutrients that can degrade water quality and harm environmental and human health. Educating and incentivizing citizens to understand what can and cannot be disposed down toilets, sinks and drains, and the importance of maintaining their privately owned laterals, will reduce sewage spills and overflows. Addressing proper use and maintenance of the sanitary sewer system will reduce the release of nutrients and pathogens into the environment.
Sarasota County experiences 100 reportable wastewater spill incidents each year from all causes — an average of one every four days (FDEP, 2019). Sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) are primarily caused by stormwater infiltration/inflow and line blockages and breaks (see Chapter 1.4).
Infiltration and Inflow
The sanitary sewer system in Sarasota County is not designed to transport groundwater and stormwater. During heavy rain events, these waters can infiltrate cracked sewer pipes and overwhelm system capacity, causing manholes to overflow and requiring emergency discharges at wastewater treatment facilities (WWTFs) (Figure 1.5.1). Stormwater can also enter and overwhelm the sewer system by inflow through unauthorized connections (e.g., yard and roof drains, and submersible pumps). The wastewater utility is responsible for maintaining pipes in the public system, whereas private citizens are responsible for maintaining pipes known as private laterals that connect their home or business to the central system. Property owners are largely unaware of this responsibility.
Infiltration and inflow can be reduced with regular inspection, rehabilitation, and maintenance of broken or failing infrastructure. Pipes installed for neighborhoods built in the early and mid-20th century were made from cast iron or tar-coated paper that has disintegrated over time (see Chapter 1.3).
Typical laterals run about 50 feet. With roughly 160,000 utility connections, there may be more than 1500 miles of privately owned sewer lines in Sarasota County. Replacing deteriorated or clogged pipes costs about $55-75 per foot, so the cost to a homeowner to replace a 50-foot lateral would be about $3,000.
Figure 1.5.1. Common sources of inflow and infiltration into sanitary sewers. Source: Regional Municipality of York, Ontario. york.ca
Line Blockages and Breaks
Line blockages and breaks can occur due to incursion of tree roots into lines or improper disposal of items such as fats, oils, and grease (FOG), trash, hand wipes and sanitary products. Blockages can produce backups into buildings and can also accumulate in sewer pipes as massive “fatbergs” that generate bottlenecks and cascading system failures.
Improperly flushed sanitary items cause massive clogs. Source: Sarasota County Government
To reduce SSOs, Sarasota County adopted an ordinance (Ord 2019-023, effective January 1, 2020) to limit and control the introduction of fats, oils, and grease into the sanitary sewer system. The ordinance requires businesses that prepare or package food or beverages to operate grease traps and interceptors and to clean and maintain traps every 30 days and interceptors every 90 days. The ordinance also requires operators to use licensed haulers to dispose of grease and solids, retain three years of maintenance and hauling records for three years, and pay a monthly FOG program fee.
Encouraging proper use of the sanitary sewer system by residents through education and outreach is a pressing need. The Tampa Bay area is leading with several public outreach initiatives such as the It’s a Toilet Not a Trash Can campaign and the F.O.G. Monsters campaign to keep fats, oils and grease from clogging pipes. The Tampa Bay Estuary Program is developing a bay area campaign to encourage homeowners to inspect and repair their private lateral lines. The Science and Environment Council and the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program have recently developed outreach materials on private laterals and flushables, although they have not yet been widely distributed (2019).
Educational outreach to the public on proper use of maintenance of sewer systems. Source: Science and Environment Council
Line blockages and breaks can be reduced through outreach and education about proper disposal of items in drains, toilets, and trash cans. A successful campaign could be designed and implemented by expanding upon existing materials from the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, Science and Environment Council, or Sarasota County Stormwater Environmental Utility, or by adapting materials from the Tampa Bay area to local audiences.
Infiltration due to cracked or leaking private sewer laterals can be reduced by education and incentives. Due to the cost, voluntary inspection and repair of private laterals is a tough sell likely to occur mainly during building renovations or to correct a problem discovered by a property inspection prior to sale. But, because broken private laterals can contribute to damages downstream in the public system, use of public funds may be justified to prevent those damages. An educational outreach campaign coupled with a rebate program could be targeted to neighborhoods where wet-weather flow is notably elevated and where backups and clogs routinely occur. Local utility fees could be utilized. Funding could also come from grants or low-cost loans from state water quality programs, or from state rebates similar to the one-time My Safe Florida Home program for hurricane wind inspections and improvements. Private insurance premium credits for inspected systems may also be an option. A bill considered in the 2020 Legislative session encouraged counties and municipalities to establish an evaluation and rehabilitation program for private sewer laterals, but did not pass.
Update (December 2020): Multiple organizations have made progress in regulating or educating residential and commercial users to reduce the introduction of fats, oils, and grease (FOG) and other pipe-clogging items into sanitary sewer systems.
- Sarasota County Utilities, with support from Sarasota County UF/IFAS Extension, has implemented a FOG Management Program targeting commercial operators involved in food preparation and grease hauling. As of April 2022, the Program regulates 830 establishments. The Program has published a best management practices manual for effective FOG management that includes information about sources of FOG, and best practices and regulations for managing FOG. The Program maintains an online performance dashboard that details total volume of grease hauled since program inception, monthly compliance rate among regulated establishments, % of annual SSO blockages due to FOG, and other metrics.
- Sarasota County Government has produced a Draft Ordinance to address infiltration and inflow from privately owned systems.
- Sarasota County Government has initiated planning to encourage residents to report pollution for enforcement action. County government responds to about 200 reports of pollution annually.
- Sarasota Bay Estuary Program continues to update an online Bay Friendly Living guide, which includes education on “unflushables” and “undrainables”.
- Science and Environment Council continues to update and distribute a rack card on best practices for sanitary sewers, including tell-tale signs of an ongoing sewage leak and a list of “unflushables”. They also deploy a new travelling three-sided, six-foot-tall kiosk that addresses best practices for sanitary sewers and septic systems.
- City of Gulfport Rebate Program
- City of St Petersburg Pilot Rebate Program
- Sarasota County Public Utilities Fats Oils and Grease Best Management Practices Guide
- Sarasota County Public Utilities FOG Management Program performance dashboard
- Education and outreach materials available from the Sarasota County Stormwater Environmental Utility, Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, and the Science and Environment Council.
- Number of participants in private lateral inspection program
- Number of sanitary sewer overflows
Experts or Leads
Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida; Sarasota Bay Estuary Program; Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Program; Pinellas County Wastewater and Stormwater Partnership
$50,000-$100,000 educational campaign
$100,000-$1,000,000 incentives and rebates
Other Wastewater Activities
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