OAK HILL — Officials this week broke ground on a $9 million project to convert a neighborhood on the northern Indian River Lagoon from septic tanks to a greener centralized sewage system.
Oak Hill Mayor Douglas Gibson told The News-Journal the project will improve water quality in the endangered Indian River Lagoon and hopefully preserve it for his grandchildren and their children.
“My feeling is that we have to start now,” he said. “Unless we clean up the lagoon and end pollution, they won’t be able to enjoy the waterways and springs in the state of Florida.”
A ceremony was held Wednesday morning to commemorate the start of the Oak Hill project, which will connect 285 homes to a county-operated sewage collection system that runs through Indian Harbor Estates.
The houses are surrounded by a sewage system.
“The nitrates and phosphates can only get into the channels that drain into the lagoon,” Gibson said. “Rainwater runoff, over-fertilization – all of this plays a role.
Research by Brian Lapointe, a scientist at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, shows that septic tanks are a major source of pollution in the Indian River Lagoon.
Declining water quality has fueled harmful algal blooms and smothered seagrasses, leading to a devastating die-off of the Florida manatee — a record-breaking death of 1,101 in 2021 — while the creatures starve.
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This is the first of five phases of the septic tank to sewer conversion in Oak Hill, where Gibson says 80% of the city’s 2,000 residents relied on septic tanks.
Much of the approximately $9 million for this phase came from the state, including $4.8 million from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The St. Johns River Water Management District provided $2.5 million, and additional money came from the city, Volusia County, and the Indian River Lagoon Council.
It’s been in the works for nearly six years — “too many,” as Gibson put it.
“I was first told, ‘That’s never going to happen,'” recalled Deb Denys, former Volusia County councilwoman. “We realized that the only way to achieve this was to split the geographic area into five phases.”
Denys commended Gibson’s vision and ability to involve all the people needed to do this work.
“Ten years ago nobody wanted to talk about water quality. The switch from septic tank to sewer was not on the radar,” she recalls. “Then everyone woke up and said we have to take care of it.”
Gibson said when he switched from an aerobic septic tank to sewer a few years ago, his annual costs actually went down. He said he and his wife pay about $65 or $70 a month for water and sewerage in Oak Hill.
Residents will have to pay about $1,000 to fine their septic tank and latch on, he said.
Residents have one year to connect, although those with well-functioning sewage treatment plants can apply for an exemption.
The construction period is 15 months.