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No simple solutions for septic tanks

By ANDREW SKERRITT
Published March 19, 2006


Many people in Citrus County hold sacred their right to keep their septic tanks and wells.

To them, central sewer and water mean more government. They'd rather be left alone.

But in Citrus, with its lakes and rivers, underwater springs and high water table, it's not that simple.

In places like Crystal River, the water table is as near as 4 feet from the surface. Two digs of a shovel and you hit water. County Commission Chairman Gary Bartell talked about putting dye in septic tanks along the Halls River and then seeing the dye appear in the nearby canal two hours later.

That reality is behind the debate to provide central sewer and water for the more than 600 properties in Chassahowitzka, the community along Miss Maggie Drive, between U.S 19 and the Chassahowitzka River.

While the community is pretty small, what happens in Chassahowitzka should matter to people who live in other unincorporated areas of Citrus that are still dominated by septics and wells.

This is about retrofitting and repairing past mistakes. It's also about old attitudes and new.

For decades people built houses along Citrus' rivers and lakes and installed septic systems and wells. Those septic tanks often leach into the groundwater or are too close to the wells.

Not everyone is convinced that getting rid of septic tanks is the solution. Some don't trust the science that blames septic tanks for pollution. Most contaminants are coming from inland, they argue.

Despite some pockets of resistance, though, there is an evolving community consensus on the need to replace septic systems with sewers. But not surprisingly, folks are often at loggerheads over who should pay and how much.

Residents in Chassahowitzka believe that cleaning up the river is everyone's responsibility. So they shouldn't have to shoulder the entire burden of installing a sewer system and running water.

Of course, some people who don't live in Chassahowitzka say it would be unfair to ask them to pay for sewers in another neighborhood. People pay for their own; that's the way it has always been.

Citrus County director of development services Gary Maidhof, the local representative to the Florida Springs Taskforce, doesn't share that outlook.

"There is a responsibility that all of us have to cover certain community costs, whether it's constructing roads, or operating a school system," he said.

Not everyone is blessed with such community spiritedness.

Looming in Tallahassee is legislation filed by local political heavyweight Sen. Nancy Argenziano which allows homeowners to opt out of connecting to sewer systems if they already have a permitted, working, on-site septic system.

Right now state law requires homeowners to hook up to the new systems within 365 days. If Argenziano's bill passes, it could limit a local government's ability to secure financing for sewer projects, since the number of customers will no longer be guaranteed.

For now, the county is trying to lower the cost for Chassahowitzka residents by also including commercial and residential properties along U.S. 19 as part of the expansion project. So instead of 599 properties, the system could have more than 1,300.

The goal is to reduce the cost to $7,000 per household: $3,500 per water and $3,500 for sewer financed over 10 years.

With retirees and working families in Chassahowitzka, even that price could be burdensome.

The alternative is the status quo: do nothing and keep talking as officials have done for the past decade. Commissioner Bartell points to Sarasota, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, places he lived before moving to Citrus.

He has seen some of the mistakes of those counties that didn't address the issue of polluting septic systems quickly enough and paid dearly.

"I wish 20 years ago somebody would have done this, so I wouldn't have to do this," he said.

Let's hope we don't hear this same lament five years from now.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813909-4602 or toll-free at 1800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 19, 2006, 01:06:13]


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