Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 22, 2020
The Escambia Slough (pronounced slew) is a body of water that ultimately flows into the Amelia River. The Escambia Slough starts east of North 14th Street and flows generally westward into Alligator Creek and ultimately the Amelia River between Westrock and the Port of Fernandina. A slough is defined as a creek in a marsh or tide flat. The entire water system is within the City of Fernandina Beach limits.
During discussion at the August 18, 2020 Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) meeting, Commissioner Chip Ross reported that Commissioners have received a number of letters from citizens concerned over the recent rise in E. coli in the Escambia Slough waters as documented in testing by the St. Mary’s Riverkeeper and the FDEP.
As defined by WebMD, E. coli (Escherichia coli), is a type of bacteria that normally lives in your intestines. It’s also found in the gut of some animals. Most types of E. coli are harmless and even help keep your digestive tract healthy. But some strains can cause diarrhea if you eat contaminated food or drink fouled water.
The St. Mary’s Riverkeeper has joined citizen concerns about the water quality. For the last 14 months volunteers have been testing the waters. Results have consistently shown that levels of E.coli are above the FDA thresholds for healthy recreational water. As we reported in January, the Riverkeeper reported the quality as poor.
Upon investigation, Ross discovered that perhaps as many as ten properties bordering the Slough are on septic systems. A failing septic system could be the source of the increase in E. coli levels. Ross said that eventually these properties will need to be connected to the City’s sewer system. Utilities Director John Mandrick has agreed that could be done relatively easilly.
Ross asked for consensus from the FBCC to direct the City Manager to determine which properties in the area are on septic systems and to forward a list of those properties to the Health Department for investigation to determine which, if any, have failing septic systems. By Florida law, investigation of failing septic systems is the job of the Department of Public Health. Ross also asked that if it is determined that there are failing septic systems, the City develop a plan for connecting these systems to the City sewer system.
Ross said that he is an advocate of sewer systems for the entire island. He acknowledged that people on septic cannot be forced to hook in to a sewer system. But he expressed optimism that in working with property owners and the St. Mary’s Riverkeeper a plan could be developed to encourage current septic system property owners to join the public sewer system.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich concurred with Ross and cited a report from two years ago stating that the Escambia Slough was in poor condition. “Let’s identify the problem and get to the problem,” he said.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger also concurred with Ross’ plan. “It is going to be costly though,” he said.
Ross explained that the City would incur the costs for bringing the sewer line to the property, but that the property owner would be required to pay the cost to hook into the sewer system. Because of bond requirements, the City cannot waive that cost. He suggested that other means to pay for the costs could be explored.
Mayor John Miller questioned what would happen if property owners declined to allow the Health Department investigators into their homes. Ross replied that the Health Department has “an absolute right” to investigate these matters.
City Manager Dale Martin clarified that while the City has received complaints with suspicions of failing septic systems in that area, the Utility Department cannot act unless such suspicions are confirmed by the Health Department. Individual complaints have not received priority in the past, but Martin opined that a request from the City backed by the FBCC might be more effective.
Clyde Davis, a founding director ot the St Mary’s Riverkeeper program, addressed the FBCC during public comment. He explained the scope and role of the St. Mary’s Riverkeeper as well as work done in Georgia and Florida. He explained the Riverkeeper’s concerns over the levels of E. coli in the Escambia Slough, which have been rising over the past 18 months. He said that there could be many reasons for this. In summer time levels tend to rise for natural reasons, but when they rise in winter months, “something not normal” appears to be taking place. He said that with higher levels of testing, the Riverkeeper discovered markers indicating that humans are the cause, citing levels of human medication found. This was the reason FDEP began its own testing.
Davis said, “And there is a human side to this problem. What it’s telling us is that someone in our community is living with the odor, the flies and the vermin that you get when you have a failing septic system. This is our community. We live here. And there is someone who needs help to deal with this kind of problem. Because there is a human side, not just pollution running into a waterway.”
Davis continued that the City cannot and should not be expected to fix this problem all by itself, but should develop partnership with the Riverkeeper, Habitat for Humanity and others to solve the problem.