A woman stands by a body of water, surrounded by various trees and bushes.
Suwannee River Water Management District Senior Project Manager Kris Eskelin says of the High Springs collaboration, “everything that we’ve seen has been very positive." (Courtesy of the Suwannee River Water Management District)

High Springs Uses State Partnership To Ditch Septic Tanks And Strive For Cleaner Springs

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High Springs has worked to modernize its wastewater system and preserve some of Florida’s natural resources for the past two decades. However, the city has seen the most progress to protect its springs over the past two years. The city, home to around 6,000 people, began a project to help residents switch from septic tanks to a sewer system.

Septic tanks are generally located underground next to homes and gather water from toilets, sinks and laundry machines after use. Water is then treated in the tank and drained into the soil.

The Suwannee River Water Management District and the City of High Springs have partnered to eliminate the usage of septic tanks in the city because of the threat it poses to the springs surrounding the city.

Blue River Park and Ginnie Springs are two of Florida’s prized natural resources and are vital to the local community.

“This has been a priority that the city has had for a long time,” said city spokesman Kevin Mangan, who noted that a sewer system is cleaner than a septic tank.

Chlorine gas is blown onto wastewater inside a sewer system, helping clean out most of the bacteria before it gets sprayed into a field. When this very large sprinkler sprays onto a closed-out field, it is then filtered back into the ground through a specific type of grass. Unlike the city sewer, septic tanks can overflow with an excess of this waste and get clogged up. This can lead to leakages from the container into the fresh groundwater, resulting in contamination of the water.

The project originated in 2000 when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection requested the city to help keep the springs safe through the septic-to-sewer project, Mangan said.

In summer 2020, one of the first phases of the septic-to-sewer system initiative was completed.

“When we completed that, we removed 160 of the septic tanks out there, which reduced 1,527 pounds of total nitrogen from the groundwater,” said Kris Eskelin, the senior project manager at the district.

The next phase currently in progress will remove 43 additional septic tanks from the system. According to Eskelin, this number equates to approximately 433 pounds of total nitrogen per year.

Half of this project phase will be completed this month. Another phase would remove an additional 119 septic systems but still requires more funding.

The water management district is also expanding a wastewater treatment plant for which the city has already funded the design. It will include a more advanced treatment system, increasing the capacity of treated wastewater from 240,000 gallons to 248,000 gallons per day.

That treatment will reduce nitrogen emissions, which will go to 20 acres of constructed wetland instead of a spray field. This will further treat the water, reducing its nutrients and recharging the aquifer.

The district has four focus areas: flood protection, water supply, natural systems and water quality.

“We focus on those four core mission areas and [the plan] with High Springs loops under the water quality project,” said district spokeswoman Lindsey Covington.

Although the project has rolled along smoothly and on schedule, the pandemic has slowed the project’s overall funding process, according to Mangan.

“[We] are continuing to strive for a larger capacity [of people] through grants and other means of funding,” Mangan said.

Still, the project’s leaders say the improvements have been well received among residents switching from septic.

“Everything that we’ve seen has been very positive,” Eskelin said. “They’ve been very cooperative and understand the environment and the need to reduce the nutrients.”

About Valerie Izquierdo

Valerie is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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