Septic systems: What should you do when a flood occurs?

Special care needs to be taken with a septic system after a flood or heavy rains. Photo credit: Flooding in Deltona, FL after Hurricane Irma. P. Lynch/FEMA

Approximately 30% of Florida’s population relies on septic systems, or onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems (OSTDS), to treat and dispose of household wastewater. This includes all water from bathrooms and kitchens, and laundry machines.

When properly maintained, septic systems can last 25-30 years, and maintenance costs are relatively low. In a nutshell, the most important things you can do to maintain your system is to make sure nothing but toilet paper is flushed down toilets, reduce the amount of oils and fats that go down your kitchen sink, and have the system pumped every 3-5 years, depending on the size of your tank and number of people in your household.

During floods or heavy rains, the soil around the septic tank and in the drain field become saturated, or water-logged, and the effluent from the septic tank can’t properly drain though the soil. Special care needs to be taken with your septic system during and after a flood or heavy rains.


Image credit: wfeiden CC by SA 2.0

How does a traditional septic system work?

The most common type of OSTDS is a conventional septic system, made up of (1) a septic tank (above), which is a watertight container buried in the ground and (2) a drain field, or leach field. The effluent (liquid wastewater) from the tank flows into the drain field, which is usually a series of buried perforated pipes. The septic tank’s job is to separate out solids (which settle on the bottom as sludge), from oils and grease, which float to the top and form a scum layer. Bacteria break down the solids (the organic matter) in the tank. The effluent, which is in the middle layer of the tank, flows out of the tank and into the drain field where it then percolates down through the ground.

During floods or heavy rains, the soil around the septic tank and in the drain field become saturated, or water-logged, and the effluent from the septic tank can’t properly drain though the soil. Special care needs to be taken with your septic system during and after a flood or heavy rains.

What should you do after flooding occurs?

  • Relieve pressure on the septic system by using it less or not at all until floodwaters recede and the soil has drained. For your septic system to work properly, water needs to drain freely in the drain field. Under flooded conditions, water can’t drain properly and can back up in your system. Remember that in most homes all water sent down the pipes goes into the septic system. Clean up floodwater in the house without dumping it into the sinks or toilet.
  • Avoid digging around the septic tank and drain field while the soil is water logged. Don’t drive heavy vehicles or equipment over the drain field. By using heavy equipment or working under water-logged conditions, you can compact the soil in your drain field, and water won’t be able to drain properly.
  • Don’t open or pump out the septic tank if the soil is still saturated. Silt and mud can get into the tank if it is opened, and can end up in the drain field, reducing its drainage capability. Pumping under these conditions can also cause a tank to pop out of the ground. 
  • If you suspect your system has been damage, have the tank inspected and serviced by a professional. How can you tell if your system is damaged? Signs include: settling, wastewater backs up into household drains, the soil in the drain field remains soggy and never fully drains, and/or a foul odor persists around the tank and drain field.
  • Keep rainwater drainage systems away from the septic drain field. As a preventive measure, make sure that water from roof gutters doesn’t drain into your septic drain field – this adds an additional source of water that the drain field has to manage.

More information on septic system maintenance after flooding can be found on the EPA website publication

By taking special care with your septic system after flooding, you can contribute to the health of your household, community and environment.

Panhandle Outdoors Water School – St. Joseph Bay

Panhandle Outdoors Water School – St. Joseph Bay

Our first POL program will happen this week – August 17 – at the Navarre Beach snorkel reef, and is sold out!  We are glad you all are interested in these programs.


Well!  We have another one for you.  The Natural Resource Extension Agents from UF IFAS Extension will be holding a two-day water school at St. Joseph Bay.  Participants will learn all about the coastal ecosystems surrounding St. Joe Bay in the classroom, snorkeling, and kayaking.  Kayaks and overnight accommodations are available for those interested.  This water school will be September 19-20.  For more information contact Extension Agent Ray Bodrey in Gulf County or Erik Lovestrand in Franklin.  Information and registration can be found at

Ecotourism in Northwest Florida

Ecotourism in Northwest Florida

Wakulla Springs is home to some of the best wildlife watching in all of northwest Florida. It’s not unusual to see manatees, alligators, and dozens of species of birds in one boat trip. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

What do you imagine when the word “ecotourism” comes to mind? I know  I usually daydream about a trip my husband I took to Costa Rica several years ago, surrounded by lush tropical rainforests as we ziplined through the canopy. I might also think about visiting a National Park, following a neatly maintained trail and stopping at signs placed at just the right spot so visitors can read and understand the special features of the place. Ecotourism, done right, brings a visitor to a unique place, tells its story, and immerses the visitor in the sights and sounds in a way that treads lightly on the location. I always know I’ve been on a good ecotour when I’m tired, happy, and have learned or seen something new.

A colleague with The Conservation Fund has stated that sustainable tourism includes: “Authentic experiences that are unique and specialized to the place (its culture, heritage, and natural resources), emphasizes quality over quantity, focuses on distinctive destinations, unspoiled landscapes, and historic buildings, and differs from mass-market tourism by favoring locally-owned businesses, thereby increasing circulation of money in the local economy.” The truly wonderful thing about ecotourism is that local touch; it exists solely because of the place, so it cannot be outsourced. The best storytellers about those places are usually the people who have lived there for many years, so by its very nature, ecotourism provides jobs for local residents.

Northwest Florida has hundreds of unique locations for visitors and locals to explore…we have centuries-old forts, clear-blue springs, endless rivers and creeks to paddle, trails on the coast and up our modest hills. We have caves and underground caverns, waterfalls, pitcher plant prairies, fishing, wildlife watching, and reefs for snorkeling and SCUBA diving. While millions come here for our quartz-sand beaches, other options that highlight our natural ecosystems deserve more attention and notoriety.

A few years ago, several Extension Agents received funding for a project called Naturally EscaRosa. The idea behind that project was to help promote and create businesses that sustainably used our agricultural and natural resources. The website ( has a list of over 100 businesses and locations where locals and out-of-town visitors can explore the less well-traveled areas of Escambia and Santa Rosa County. As you move east down the coast, Walton Outdoors, the local Visit Florida affiliates, and other privately managed media groups have done similar work, providing a showcase for these treasures in our midst.

This summer, try one of the local ecotourism or agritourism venues near you! Moreover, when your friends and family visit from out of town, encourage them to do the same. We cannot have a successful economy without a healthy ecosystem, and supporting these local and regional businesses is good for both.  

For more information on sustainable ecotourism, visit the Society for Ethical Ecotourism (SEE), and for information on starting or visiting an agritourism business, try Visit Florida Farms. And as always, reach out to your local County Extension agents, and we will be more than happy to point you in the right direction to discover to places to explore with your family.



You Say It’s Just a Swamp…

You Say It’s Just a Swamp…

Recent rains have water standing on some Wakulla County real estate, which has been dry for several years. Ponds, natural and dug, are brimming with water reflecting the generous outpouring from the slow and wet weather system, which passed listlessly over the county.

Cypress swamp in Jackson County.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The rainwater excess is also filling the natural low points known as swamps or wetlands.

A swamp is defined as a forested wetland. Some occur along the flood plain of rivers, where they are dependent upon surplus flow from upstream and from local runoff.

Other swamps appear adjacent to ponds in shallow depressions, which fill during wet periods. Their landscape is covered by aquatic vegetation or trees and plants, which tolerates periodical inundation.

Historically, swamps have an image problem. Legend has all sorts of unsavory creatures, degenerates, and ghost inhabiting the locale waiting for the unsuspecting traveler.

Even the proper British used the term as a pejorative to describe Francis Marion during the American Revolution. The Swamp Fox engaged in guerilla warfare against the conventional forces and hid in the swamps to avoid capture.

Economically, these watery regions have had very low values. Their only significance was as site for trapping, hunting or for logging in dry years.

Medically, swamps were seen as a quick and painful way to the grave. There were all those creatures, which could inflict pain, leeches, snakes, gators and the like.

Then there was disease. As an example, the term Malaria originated from the swamps of southern Europe where it meant bad air in medieval Italian.  The mosquito connection was unknown until the early 20th Century.

Hollywood piled on the problem with a series of swamp monster movies. One, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” was partially filmed at Wakulla Springs.

Reality, as is often the case, is quite different from the initial perception. Even the term swamp has fallen out of favor in some circles, being replaced with wetlands.

Swamps or wetlands serve a variety of functions in the panhandle. Possibly the most critical is as a filtration system for the water table.

Excess rain is held in these shallow depressions and allowed to percolate or filter slowly through the soil. The screening effect of the soil and subsoil layers along with the slow progression cleanses the water of numerous impurities from the surface.

Without the holding capacity of local swamps, most rainwater would end up in streams and rivers. In addition to being a loss for the water table, the excess water would cloud waterways with a glut of surface debris and nutrients.

Large bald cypress trees serve as wildlife habitat at Wakulla Springs State Park. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

It is true mosquitos favor the still swamp waters, but so do many birds, fish and animals. Swamp rookeries are the nesting home for many wading birds. Mosquito larvae are an important link in the food chain, which supports much of the life in the swamp, and beyond.

Even some of the swamp’s most ostracized residents, snakes, have an important part to play in the overall environmental balance. These reptiles control the population of many destructive insects and rodents.

To learn more about the importance of swamps and wetlands, contact your UF/IFAS County Extension Office.

Yep… Those are Bald Eagles You are Seeing

Yep… Those are Bald Eagles You are Seeing

After Hurricane Ivan devastated the Pensacola area in 2004, my son was working to repair docks in local waterways. One day, after working on a project in Bayou Texar (near Pensacola Bay), he came by our house and said that he had seen a bald eagle fly over.  My wife and I both responded with amazement but at the same time were thinking… “Yea right”.  A few days later, we were sitting on the back porch (we live near Bayou Texar) and glancing up we saw a huge bird flying over… you guessed it… a bald eagle.  We both looked at each other and just shook our heads saying “did you just see?… yep, that was a bald eagle”.  It was totally cool!

An adult and juvenile bald eagle on nest in Montana.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

In the 1970’s I worked for a local chemical plant on Escambia Bay that had a bird sanctuary on the property. Occasionally a bald eagle would appear during the winter months but it was not annually, and it was a real treat to see it.  However, since Ivan sightings in the panhandle have become quite common.  Folks are seeing them over Pensacola Bay, Perdido Bay, Garcon area of Santa Rosa County, Gulf Breeze peninsula, almost everywhere!  I actually saw three flying together over Big Sabine on Pensacola Beach recently.  They are actually now nesting in the area.


These are large birds, 30-40” long with a 7-8 feet wing span, and hard to misidentify – everyone knows a bald eagle. However, the juveniles do not have the distinct white head and tail or the brilliant yellow beak.  Rather they are dark brown with possible white spots on their wings, and the beak is darker.  The mature color change occurs in 5-6 years.  Their diet is mostly fish but they will take small birds and mammals.  They are also scavengers, including road-kill, and will “pirate” captured food from other birds.  Observations support that ospreys and bald eagles do not really get along.


Bald eagles tend to migrate between their breeding grounds in Canada and those of the Gulf Coast. The migrants are typically non-breeding individuals. Breeding ones tend to remain in their breeding areas year round.  As of 2014, Florida has the highest densities of southern breeding populations in the lower 48 states, about 1500 nests.  Most return to Florida in the fall for nest building.  Their nests are typically in forested areas near waterways.  They prefer the tallest trees.  The nests are quite large; the record in Florida was 9.5 feet in diameter.  They typically lay one clutch of 1-3 eggs but may lay a second clutch if the first is unsuccessful.  The young remain in the nests until they can fly – usually April or May.  Wintertime is a good time to view these animals in our area.


Their numbers plummeted for a variety of reasons, including the introduction of DDT, and they were placed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species list. DDT was banned in 1972 and listing them on the ESL protected from them from poaching; they have since recovered.  Today they are no longer on the Endangered Species list and were removed from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissions (FWC) imperiled species list.  However, they are still protected federally by the Bald / Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Protection Act; they are also protected in Florida by state law.


Potential viewing locations can be found on FWC’s bald eagles nest location site.


This site provides known locations between 2012 and 2014. Recent surveys were conducted between 2015 and 2016 in several panhandle counties but those locations have not been posted yet.  For those in the Pensacola area, there are four permanently injured bald eagles at the Wildlife Sanctuary of Northwest Florida.  The public is welcome to visit the sanctuary Wednesday through Saturday from 12:00 – 3:30PM (self-guided).

105 North S Street, Pensacola FL 32505

For more information: