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After an intense election season, Americans on both sides of the political coin have a heightened awareness of voting’s importance. Citizens of Vero Beach, Fla., are very aware, too—after all, it was their votes that determined the future of the city’s sewer system.
Until recently, approximately 1,500 failing septic systems served large portions of Vero Beach. These systems were degrading the Indian River Lagoon adjacent to the city with excessive nutrient loads and pollution. In 2007, the state of Florida offered to expand the city’s gravity sewer system by means of a $1.5 million grant. The grant offer was put to a vote, with 60% homeowner support required for it to pass. The votes were cast and counted. The outcome: Only 14% of homeowners voted in favor of expanding the system.
Cost was a major factor in arguments against expansion. The entire project was estimated to cost $22.5 million, and gravity sewers almost always require mandatory connections to offset costs—even for residents whose septic systems were functioning properly. Residents also were concerned that installing the sewers would damage their live oak trees, landscaping and roads.
Robert Bolton, director of water and sewer for the city of Vero Beach, began investigating other options. He settled on an Orenco effluent sewer system, also known as a Septic Tank Effluent Pump (STEP) system, which was estimated to cost $11 million in comparison to the original $22.5 million proposal.
The STEP system uses small-diameter mainlines laid at a constant depth, which minimizes construction impact and can be adapted to narrow streets. Moreover, the lower average cost of the effluent sewer ($885,000 total, or $600 per lot, versus $18 million, or $12,000 per lot for the original proposal) meant that residents would not be forced to connect to the sewer system, but could opt in at any time if their onsite systems failed.
The St. Johns River Water Management District, a branch of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, supplied two grants for the project totaling $540,000. The city also developed its own incentive program to encourage Vero Beach residents to connect to the new system, collectively called “STEP Up and Save.” Property owners who signed up for the system within 12 months of notification were eligible to receive a credit of $2,290, offsetting the fee normally charged to new sewer customers. Homeowners who paid in full for their STEP package at the time of application could receive a wastewater utility extension credit of $1,100.
The first 2-in. collection lines and on-lot STEP packages were installed in the spring of 2015, with 1,500 residences expected to connect to the sewer system by the time the project is completed in the fall of 2017. Primary-treated effluent from on-lot STEP packages is pumped to the city’s wastewater treatment facility. Water quality in the lagoon is expected to experience considerable improvement thanks to the new sewer system and connections.
“The STEP system has been extremely well-received by residents of Vero Beach, as well as proponents of the Indian River Lagoon. The system is innovative and economical—particularly in comparison to conventional sewers—and residents are happy to be helping improve the health of the lagoon. In addition, the installations have been progressing with minimal disruption to residents,” Bolton said.
“We’re proud to provide a solution that improves water quality in the Indian River Lagoon while also benefiting our residents by providing STEP sewer installations at half the cost of gravity sewer,” he added. “The STEP system has made it affordable for residents to switch from septic to sewer.”