Skip to main content

Trying to Help the Sewage Problem

For almost a decade we have been trying to help with the sewage problems some of our area waterways have faced.  You cannot always see the problems, but we do hear about them.  We hear about them through health advisories issued by the Health Department, and through sanitary sewage overflows notices issued by the Emerald Coast Utility Authority.

Photo: Rick O’Connor

The Health Department issues health advisories based on the concentration of an indicator bacteria called EnterococcusEnterococcus is a bacteria found in the large intestine of birds and mammals.  It is associated with digestion and is often released when birds and mammals defecate – so, finding it in a water system is no surprise.  However, when concentrations are high it indicates levels of sewage are high as well.  Yes, it could be that the high concentrations are attributed to any bird or mammal but the criteria set would suggest these high numbers are more related to large amounts of sewage from sewage systems – such as sanitary sewer overflows and septic leaks/discharges.  There is a correlation between high readings in local waters and rainfall, but not always.

 

Enterococcus is the bacteria of choice for estuarine/marine systems due to its tolerance of salt water.  There are other fecal bacteria and others are often used in freshwater sampling.  The Florida Department of Health monitors local beaches in a program they call Florida Healthy Beaches.  In this program they select beaches where humans swim frequently and monitor them for Enterococcus.  They monitor such beaches in 30 counties across the state including Escambia and Santa Rosa.  In Escambia they monitor 13 public swimming areas – not all at the same frequency.  Monitoring includes collecting a water sample, usually Monday or Tuesday, and analyzing for the number of Enterococcus colonies, this may take 24-48 hours.  The results are posted at the end of the week.  Of the 13 Escambia County locations, Bayou Texar and Sanders Beach are sampled most frequently – every week.  In the spring they begin to include Bayou Chico, Bayou Grande, Big Lagoon State Park, Perdido Key State Park, Casino Beach, Park East, Park West, and Quietwater Beach.  During summer they add Ft. Pickens, Opal Beach, and Johnson’s Beach.  As summer, and the peak of swimming season, ends they stop monitoring Pickens, Opal, and Johnson’s beaches.  The end of fall means the end of monitoring at Bayou’s Chico and Grande, Big Lagoon and Perdido Key State Parks, Casino and Quietwater beaches, as well as Park’s East and West.  Monitoring of Bayou Texar and Sanders beach continue year-round.

Enterococcus is a fecal bacteria that can tolerate saline water. It is used for monitoring sewage in estuarine waterways.
Image: National Institute of Health

One may ask “why stop monitoring any of them?”  The answer… cost.  It is not cheap to run these samples at as many locations, and as frequently, as people would like.  There is a budget and they must remain within this.  So, they focus on the swimming beaches and the time of year people are using them.

 

When a sample is analyzed they are counting the number of Enterococcus colonies that form.  If the number of colonies is 35 or less, it is considered GOOD.  Remember zero is probably not going to happen because we do have birds and mammals naturally defecating in our estuaries.  If the concentration of colonies falls between 36 and 70, it is considered MODERATE.  Moderate is like a “yellow flag”, concentrations are getting high but not high enough that people should not be in the water.  If a sample finds 71 colonies, or more, it is considered POOR and a second sample will be pulled.  If the results of the second sample again show 71 colonies, or more, a health advisory is issued – it is not recommended that people swim at this location until numbers drop.   

 

It is important to note here that Enterococcus, in itself, is not the real concern.  It is an indicator that untreated sewage may be in the waterways.  Human feces carry all sorts of pathogenic bacteria that could be a risk to human health if you are swimming in it.  So, the presence of Enterococcus means there is sewage in the water and potential pathogenic microbes could be as well.

Citizen scientists monitoring water quality on Bayou Texar.
Photo: Marine Science Academy Washington High School

Since not all beaches are sampled at the same frequency, we (extension) have been monitoring the percent of samples taken that require health advisories.  The data table below are the numbers so far for 2021.  You can see, to date, 153 samples have been collected by the Department of Health.  34 of these were determined to be POOR (22%).  All of those were resampled and 27 (18%) were issued health advisories.  You will also note that all of the waterbodies that required health advisories were our local bayous – Sanders Beach is at the mouth of Bayou Chico.

 

Over the years of monitoring this, we have found that the local bayous are issued health advisories over 30% of the time they are sampled, sometimes as much as 60% of the samples collected.  Our coastal waters along Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key, where most people swim, are currently at 0% of samples requiring a health advisory, despite the heavy rain we have been receiving this year.  It is rare they are more than 5% in any given year and I cannot remember once when they were over 11%.  Health advisories do occur here, but they are very rare.

 

The bayous are different.

We do see a correlation with rainfall – the more it rains, the higher the bacteria count, the more advisories.  But that is not always the case with Bayou Chico.  We have seen rain decrease in the area and Bayou’s Grande and Texar advisories decrease as well.  But Bayou Chico has had health advisories issued when rain is not occurring.  Bayou Chico is our areas BMAP site.  BMAP is an acronym for Basin Management Action Plan.  These are required for impaired bodies of water of high concern.  Bayou Chico is a concern due to the constant high bacteria loads it has experienced.  You will notice so far, in 2021, 8 of the 11 samples taken (73%) have required a health advisory.  Over the years Bayou Chico has been consistently at 40-60% of samples requiring an advisory.

Bayou Grande in Pensacola.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

How can we turn this around?

There has been a lot of effort from both the city and the county to improve the bacteria situation in these bayous, and improvements, particularly in Bayou’s Grande and Texar, have been seen.  But all three still hover around 30% or more.

 

Is there anything we can do to help?

Yes…

  • If you have a septic system, maintain it properly and schedule a pump out every 3-5 years. Septic systems are designed to flow into tanks where biology helps break down (treats) the sewage.  This is then dispersed over a drain field on your property.  Sometimes these were placed at a bad location, or over soils that do not drain well.  Current regulations forbid this, but this is an old town and that was not always the case.  The system or drain field can become clogged with materials we flush down the drain.  The commode was meant for one thing.  Today we flush all sorts of products down the drain that compromise the effectiveness of the septic system.  Grease and oil are two major problems.  “Flushable” wipes are flushable but not biodegradable as toilet paper is.  They are now finding problems will old milk.  Seems it is solidifying in the pipes and causing clogs.  All of these can cause potential problems with the system creating backflows into local waterways and into your home.  Watch what you flush, and schedule pump-outs at least once every 3-5 years.  This will help.
  • If you are in a septic system, and can connect to a sewer line, consider doing this. This will reduce your maintenance schedule and place the issue of sewage treatment on the sewage treatment facilities.  It can be expensive to connect, and there will be a new monthly bill, but there are programs that can assist with cost for some homeowners and – again – the maintenance falls on someone else.
  • If you are on sewer the problem is not over. Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs) are situations where untreated sewage overflows the sewage line system and pops out of manhole covers, etc.  These usually happen during heavy rains but not always.  Many times, they are due to products being flushed down the system that solidify and clog the lines – forcing these overflows.  One sewage treatment manager from a large town in Georgia that I spoke with said – “if you can tell the public one thing – tell them to quit pouring bacon grease down the drain”.  We have all seen what happens to bacon grease you place in a coffee cup and save for some cooking project down the road.  You can only imagine what the sewer lines must look like when hundreds of thousands of residents, and businesses, are doing the same – every day.  Non-biodegradable flushable products, milk, the list goes on.  The Emerald Coast Utility Authority (ECUA) has a program that call FOG (Fats, Oils, and Grease).  This program provides free plastic gallon jugs to pour your frying grease into instead of the drain.  There are several locations around town where you drive up – grab a new jug – take it home and fill it.  When full, you just bring it back and swap for a an empty.  It cost nothing.  We have such a station at the county extension office.  Read more about the FOG program, and where the stations are found, at Fats, Oils & Grease (fl.gov).

We may never get rid of health advisories, actually – this will not happen – but if we could do our part maybe we could get the number issued in local bayous under 30% of those sampled.  This would be a great start in “Cleaning Up Our Bayous”.  If you have any questions about this material, contact Rick O’Connor at the Escambia County Extension Office – (850) 475-5230 ext.1111, roc1@ufl.edu

 

GOOD             0-35 colonies/100ml of sample

MODERATE    36-70 colonies/100ml

POOR              71> colonies/100ml

 

Health Advisory Frequency

Data provided by the Florida Department of Health’s Healthy Beaches Program

Body of Water # of samples collected # of POOR reports # of advisories issued % frequency of advisories
Bayou Texar 28 9 7 .25
Sanders Beach 32 12 9 .28
Bayou Chico 11 8 8 .73
Bayou Grande 11 4 3 .27
Big Lagoon SP 12 1 0 .00
Perdido Key SP        
Casino Beach 11 0 0 .00
Park East 11 0 0 .00
Park West 11 0 0 .00
Quietwater Beach 11 0 0 .00
Ft. Pickens 5 0 0 .00
Opal Beach 5 0 0 .00
Johnson’s Beach 5 0 0 .00
TOTAL 153 34 27 .18