Lee approves expansion of bacteria testing
North Fort Myers has septic tanks throughout much of the area, and it could be having an effect on our waters, particularly at the surface, officials say.
The Lee Board of County Commissioners voted at its Nov. 5 meeting to approve a project with Florida Atlantic University to provide enhanced bacterial testing and analysis of various Lee County waterways, including expanded coverage in North Fort Myers, which is being tested for the second straight year.
The testing and analysis will provide a strong understanding of potential sources of human waste bacteria in surface waters in several areas, countywide, with known septic tank coverage, officials said.
The study will take approximately 18 months to complete.
“We learned so much on the initial study on North Fort Myers bacteria assessment we decided to take it countywide and understand the greater effect septic systems are having on the entire county,” Commissioner Brian Hamman said.
The $645,000 approved will be an extension of similar work FAU is currently conducting in the North Fort Myers area of the Caloosahatchee Estuary.
Lee County first contracted with FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in 2017 and approved a $98,000 contract with them. This past June the BOCC approved another year of the research at a cost of nearly $90,000.
Based on the first-year results of the Caloosahatchee study, the BOCC has expanded it to include other waterways in Lee County.
According to staff analysis, nutrient and bacteria pollution of coastal waters is a growing global issue with many ecological and public health implications. In Southwest Florida, increasing population combined with aging wastewater infrastructure and extreme weather events have led to deteriorating water quality conditions.
In 2018, a severe algae bloom and red tide resulted in the closure of waterways for recreational use. Algae-green water could be found throughout the region and in the canals in North Fort Myers and Cape Coral, and a state of emergency was declared by then-Gov. Rick Scott.
The Caloosahatchee River is impaired for nutrients, chlorophyll a, dissolved oxygen, and fecal coliforms, the analysis states. There are several areas within the county where septic-to-sewer conversion could have an improving effect on water quality.
Areas that would benefit most from septic-to-sewer conversion can be prioritized using factors such as proximity to surface waters, age of septic systems, estimates of nitrogen loading, geographic location, utility infrastructure (existing or opportunity for expansion), and utility franchise area.
North Fort Myers seems to fit that description. It has many homes right along the river that use septic, with many of those systems decades old that officials say haven’t been cleaned out.
Hamman said there are other areas in the county where human waste has become an issue, and that several areas have been pinpointed.
“When we begin to consider projects like sewer, those are very expensive projects. When we suggest them, we want to do it where we get the most bang for our buck,” Hamman said. “It costs a lot of money to build the infrastructure so we want to take a surgical approach and know we’re doing it in the right areas.”