UF/IFAS Water School Webinar Series: Managing Stormwater in a Changing FL Panhandle 2023

UF/IFAS Water School Webinar Series: Managing Stormwater in a Changing FL Panhandle 2023

Join us for a two-part webinar series: Managing Stormwater in a Changing FL Panhandle 2023 on May 3 from 8-11 am CST (9-12 pm EST), and May 17 from 8-11 am CST (9-12 pm EST). For those that have attended in previous years, we have a lot of new material to present and discuss.

Please register here: Stormwater Management Eventbrite A detailed agenda can be found on the Eventbrite page.

May 3: Session 1 will focus on Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) and its maintenance, as well as presentations and discussion on the ecological function of GSI+LID (Low impact Development) and the Community Rating System

May 17: Session 2 will focus on implementing GSI+LID at the community level, with presentations and discussion on updates and opportunities for LID+GSI in Rules and Regulations, available funding and educational resources for project implementation and community-based social marketing.

PDHs and CEUs offered:

  • 4 Professional Development Hours (PDH) will be offered through the Florida Board of Professional Engineers. Two PDHs will be offered for Day 1 and two will be offered for Day 2.
  • 4 Continuing Education Units (CEU) will be offered for Pesticide Applicators through FDACS in the following categories: Ornamental & Turf, Private Applicator Ag, Right-of-Way, Aquatic, Natural Areas, Commercial Lawn & Ornamental, Limited Commercial Landscape Maintenance, Limited Lawn & Ornamental and Limited Urban Fertilizer.

The webinar is free for those not seeking PDHs or CEUs. For those seeking PDHs or CEUs, the cost is $50 for Day 1, and $50 for Day 2.

We look forward to your attendance! Feel free to contact Andrea Albertin if you have any questions: albertin@ufl.edu or (850) 875-7111

Multi-County Private Well and Water Quality Workshop

Multi-County Private Well and Water Quality Workshop

Private well system in Florida. Image: C. Wofford, UF/IFAS Photography

As a private well owner, you are responsible for ensuring that your water is safe to drink. What do you know about where well water comes from? Do you know how well water can become contaminated? If you want to learn about steps you can take to help ensure your drinking water is safe to consume and about what you can do to help protect groundwater quality, join us at our upcoming workshop. We will cover how private wells and septic systems work, maintenance, protecting drinking water quality, and disaster preparedness for this upcoming hurricane season.

The workshop will be offered on Thursday, April 13, 2023, from 5:00 pm – 7:30 pm at the Jackson County Agriculture Offices, 2741 Penn Ave., Marianna. You can also attend virtually via Zoom. Registration is $5.00 per person. Facilitated water screening for total coliform and E. coli bacteria is available for FREE! Please register using this Eventbrite link, or you can also register by visiting the Jackson County Extension Office, 2741 Penn Avenue, Suite 3, Marianna (850-482-9620). This workshop is being presented by UF/IFAS Extension Bay, Calhoun, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington Counties.

For lead and nitrate testing prices and additional details, visit our Eventbrite page or call the Jackson County Extension Office at 850-482-9620. Pre-registration is encouraged as seating is limited, but as mentioned previously, a virtual option is also available. For persons with disabilities requiring special accommodations, please contact the Extension Office (TDD, via Florida Relay Service, 1-800-955-8771) at least ten working days prior to the class so that proper consideration may be given to the request. UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.   

Reducing Health Advisories in Our Coastal Waters; Part 4 Maintaining Your Sewage System

Reducing Health Advisories in Our Coastal Waters; Part 4 Maintaining Your Sewage System

It seems odd that we would be talking about maintaining your sewer system; that was a selling point to convert from septic.  But there are things we do that can cause clogs in the lines that initiate what we call Sanitary Sewage Overflows (SSOs).  These overflows can overflow into your home and into the street, entering the stormwater systems leading to our coastal waterways. 

How you can prevent this is pretty simple – watch what you pour down your drain.  After visiting one sewage treatment facility in Georgia, we were told by the plant manager “If you tell the public one thing… tell them to quit pouring bacon grease down the drain”.  He then held up a pipe from their system that was 80% clogged with bacon grease.  All fats, oils, and grease poured down the drain eventually solidify and form clogs.  Recently they have found that milk solidifies as well.  You should avoid pouring all of these products down the drain. 

So, what do we do with it them?

In Escambia County, the local utility provides a free service to deal with this they call the FOG Program (FOG – Fats, Oils, Grease).  They provide large metal cabinets outside locations around the community.  Inside, there are 1-gallon plastic containers.  You take one home.  Fill with your fat, oil, and grease.  Return it and get a new one.  They take these oils back and covert them into biofuels.  It is very similar to the propane system for your BBQ grill – and often found at the same place – but the difference is that there is no charge.  If you live in Escambia County, you can find the FOG dispensary cabinet closest to you at ECUA FOG.   If your county does not offer this service, encourage them to do so.

The FOG gallon containers are found in these metal cabinets placed around the county. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Another issue that has caused SSOs is the flushing of “flushable wipes” and similar products.  They are “flushable” but not “degradable”.  There was one report from London of a ball of flushable wipes equivalent in size to one of their buses found in the city sewer system.  I have seen signs in public restrooms that say “flush nothing but toilet paper” – and that is good advice. 

1-gallon container provided free to dispose of your oil and grease. Photo: Rick O’Connor

And there is one other thing that you, the property owner, can do to help reduce the chance of leaking sewage into our waterways – maintaining your laterals

Laterals are the pipes extending from you house to the sewer system under the street.  Maintaining these are the responsibility of the homeowner, and most do not – or may not know it is their responsibility.  Newer developments should have laterals in good shape, older ones should be inspected.  I live on an older community in Pensacola.  Many of the houses in our neighborhood were built in the 1930s, some in the 1920s.  The laterals were made of terracotta, or something similar.  They have cracked and filled with roots and dirt over time.  There is certainly leakage ongoing, and the homeowner may not even know it. 

This past summer we had a sewage backup.  We called a plumber who first recommended scoping the laterals.  This involved sending a television camera scope down the line.  We found that half way between our house and the street it was relatively new PVC line.  From the halfway point to the sewer line in the street, it was old terracotta.  The sad part of this was we had paid a contractor to replace the terracotta to the street – they only did half.  You would say this fell on the contractor to fix, but that contractor was no longer in business – if fell on us.  We paid to have the rest of the lateral converting to PVC, we are now good.   

The point of this story is two things… (a) many have never had their lateral surveyed, you should to make sure all is good.  This is not only good for the environment, but also will save costly repair bills down the road.  (b) Just because you paid to have to have it repaired does not mean it was.  I recommend you use a certified, well known plumber to check and, if needed, replace/repair your line. 

If the property owner will consider, and act on, one of the following three this can reduce the health advisories issued in our coastal waters significantly.  We encourage you to do so and educate your neighbor and friends to do the same. 

  1. If on septic, develop and enact a septic tank maintenance plan.
  2. Convert from a septic system to a sewer system. 
  3. If on sewer, have your laterals inspected, do not pour fats, oils, grease, or milk down the drain, and do not flush flushable wipes or similar products.

If you have further questions, do not hesitate to contact your county extension office. 

Reducing Health Advisories in Our Coastal Waters; Part 3 How Sewage Treatment Works

Reducing Health Advisories in Our Coastal Waters; Part 3 How Sewage Treatment Works

Part of the 2019 UF IFAS social media survey across Florida found that many Floridians understood how septic systems worked, but fewer understood how sewer systems functioned.  This article is going to try and tell you the basics of how sewage treatment works. 

As we just mentioned, many people have no idea where their sewage goes after they flush – nor do they care – as long as it does not stay here 😊.  When we flush – it goes – and that is all we think about.  This is one of the advantages of sewer over septic – you do not have to maintain anything.  You just flush and go.  However, we will see in Part 4 that there are some things that are still on us to help keep sanitary sewage from reaching our coastal waterways. 

So – where does the sewage go when we are on a sewer system?

The raw sewage leaves our house through a pipe called the lateral.  This line connects to the municipal sewage line under the street.  From here it flows to the local sewage treatment facility.  In some communities, this is downhill from the residential area, and the sewage flows via gravity.  In others, it is uphill and must use a series of pumps, or lift stations, to get the raw sewage to the treatment plant. 

Sewage treatment facility. Image: Oro Loma Sanitary District.

Once it reaches the plant the sewage undergoes PRIMARY TREATMENT.  This is a series of methods that physically treats the waste.  Often, stop #1 is a screen that removes large objects.  You would be surprised what ends up in the sewer lines heading to the treatment facility.  Wood, boxes, and plastic bags.  I heard one treatment plant found a small hog in their screen system. 

Once past the screens the wastewater is run through a grit chamber.  This continues the physical process of removing large objects from the wastewater as it trickles through.  Material such as sand and rock settles to the bottom of the chamber.  This settled material can be removed, treated, and disposed of. 

The effluent (water) continues on to stop #3 – the settling tank.  Here it is allowed to sit so that smaller fine solids can settle to the bottom of the tank – not that different if you placed muddy water into a clear 1-gallon jar and allowed it sit, the mud would slowly settle to the bottom making the water clearer.  This settled material contains much of the solid waste from when we went to the restroom.  Here it is called sludge.  The sludge is drained off, treated, and usually dried in a pile that would resemble dirt.  Some communities load this into trucks and take it to a designated area in the landfill.  Some communities will use it as a fertilizer on crops.  Some countries allow this but not for crops that will be used as food.  I heard some locations around the world use the dried material to form bricks and building materials. 

Studies show that primary treatment can remove as much as 60% of the suspended solids and 30-40% of the organic waste that is oxygen-demanding in an aquatic system. 


It does not remove pathogens that maybe be in the sewage, phosphates and nitrates that can cause eutrophication, salts which alter the salinity and living conditions for aquatic life, radioisotopes, nor pesticides.  For this, we will need secondary treatment

The clearer effluent remaining after settling moves to SECONDARY TREATMENT.  Where primary treatment was a physical method of treating wastewater, secondary treatment is a biological method.  Stop #1 is the aeration tank.  Here the effluent is aerated using a sprinkler system that provides oxygen so that the microbes living in the tank can further break down any pathogens and other biological demanding waste.  This treated water is then sent to a second settling tank where more sludge is allowed to settle.  The settled sludge is then cycled back into the aeration tank – and the process continues.  The clearer water at the surface of the second settling tank is then sent to a tank where is disinfected – often with chlorine.  If balanced correctly, the amount of chlorine added is enough to kill much of the remaining bacteria but not high enough to be a threat to the environment.  This water is then analyzed for contaminants, including fecal bacteria, and – if it passes the test – is discharged into a local waterway as treated sewage.  Studies have found that a combination of primary and secondary treatment can remove 95-97% of the suspended solids and oxygen-demanding waste, 70% of most toxic metal compounds, 70% of the phosphorus, and 50% of the nitrogen. 

For many communities this is good and is the end of the line.  For others, they are willing to spend additional dollars and move to more advanced treatments before discharge – what is called TERTIARY TREATMENT.  One method of tertiary treatment is using a series of filters that can reduce the levels of phosphates and nitrates remaining in the effluent.  These compounds are the ones that trigger eutrophication and algal blooms and many communities feel the extra charge on their bill is worth it.  These filters can actually remove some viruses.  Some use chlorine for a second round, however studies have shown that increased amounts of chlorine can react with organic materials to form chlorinated hydrocarbons – which have been linked to cancers, miscarriages, and damage to human nervous, immune, and endocrine systems.  For those going this route, many have opted for UV radiation or ozone treatment in lieu of more chlorine. 

After either secondary or tertiary treatment, many municipalities run their treated effluent through a marsh or swamp before it reaches the open water systems.  Studies have shown that these plants are very good at up taking nutrients, and some other contaminants, as the water flows through them.

Many feel this is a better method of treating human waste than a septic system.  One point is that YOU do not have to manage your tank – the city does.  Though this is true there is a monthly bill to pay for this service and some would rather not pay that.  It is also important to understand that you are not quite off the hook yet.  There is maintenance needed to the sewer system BY THE HOMEOWNER, and we will discuss this in Part 4. 

NISAW: Giant salvinia

NISAW: Giant salvinia

Despite its name, giant salvinia (Salvinia molesta) is actually pretty small. The floating plant starts out with a cluster of leaves no bigger than a dime. They don’t stay that way, though, and perhaps their outsized influence and spread gives the “giant” a little more credence.

Giant salvinia is an invasive aquatic plant that was introduced to the United States as an ornamental plant (for aquariums and backyard ponds) from South America. Once it managed to escape to the wild, however, salvinia really took off. More than 20 states report salvinia popping up in their waters, although Texas and Louisiana seem to have the biggest battles with it. The plant has choked up entire freshwater lakes and sections of rivers, requiring a major eradication effort just to regain access to the water. Even small craft like kayaks and canoes cannot make it through a water body clogged with this plant. It is often spread by small pieces lodging in boat motors and trailers, so if you boat frequently in an area of known salvinia, be sure to remove any fragments of the plant once you are back on land. Preventing the spread from one water body to another is crucial.

Our native birds, fish, and aquatic mammals don’t eat giant salvinia—it appears not to have much nutritional value—and therefore its growth goes unchecked. The thick mats of plant growth block sunlight into the water column, preventing other aquatic plants from growing. Die-offs of large numbers of salvinia can eat up oxygen levels in the water, causing fish kills.

Giant salvinia overgrowth in a backwater section of Bayou Chico in Escambia County. Photo credit: Escambia County Natural Resource Management

There are several approaches to managing the plant. Mechanical or hand removal can take out significant amounts of salvinia, but is ineffective in the long run. Any small piece of chopped up plant left behind in the process will regrow into new spreading plants, so leaving any fragments in the water ends up increasing the population. More effective methods include applying herbicides or using a biocontrol insect called the salvinia weevil. This South American beetle (Cyrtobagous salviniae) is very small (only 2 mm as an adult) but feeds exclusively on salvinia plants, stunting their growth and causing them to sink underwater. A well-established salvinia weevil population can effectively manage large infestations of the plant, dropping coverage by 90%.

One natural check to unfettered growth in our area is that salvinia tends to thrive only in freshwater or very low salinity water bodies. We have identified populations of salvinia in the upper reaches of local bayous in Escambia County, but as salinity levels increase closer to the bay, the plant seems unable to establish itself.

Identification of giant salvinia is rather fascinating, as you need a hand lens to definitively distinguish it from a very similar nonnative species called water spangles or water fern (Salvinia minima). Both species have small clear-white, upright hairs covering the leaves. When examined closely, the observer will note that in giant salvinia that double pairs of hairs form a structure very similar to an egg beater, whereas in water spangles the leaf hairs do not connect.

Giant salvinia can be distinguished from its cousin, common salvinia (Salvinia minima) by the shape of its trichomes, or leaf-hairs. Giant salvinia’s leaf hairs (right) are closed at the tip, forming an “egg-beater” shape, whereas common salvinia’s leaf hairs (left) are branched at the tip. Giant salvinia is a larger plant that forms thicker, denser mats. Common salvinia can cover large areas but typically forms thinner mats and does not pose as much risk to boating traffic. Photos and caption courtesy LSU AgCenter

If you think you see giant salvinia in a local water body, we would love to know. It is an aggressive invasive plant that is relatively new to the area, and we have a chance to keep this from spreading with your help. What can you do?

  • Contact the Escambia County Division of Water Quality and Land Management – (850) 595-3496
  • Contact the Escambia County Extension Office – (850) 475-5230 ext. 1111
  • Report in the EDDMapS national database – https://www.eddmaps.org – select “report sightings”
  • If you find just a small amount, remove it and allow to dry out on your property. Once dried you can double bag and dispose of it.
Reducing Health Advisories in Our Coastal Waters; Part 2 Septic Conversion

Reducing Health Advisories in Our Coastal Waters; Part 2 Septic Conversion

In Part 1 of Reducing Health Advisories, we discussed how owners of septic systems could develop a management plan to reduce such health advisories.  In Part 2 we look at another option for septic system owners – converting to the local sewer system. 

You might begin by asking – “why would I want to do that?”.  It’s a fair question.  If my septic system is working properly, do I need to convert to sewer?   But is it?  Some septic systems were not placed in a good location, and the general maintenance you would follow could still lead to leaking fecal bacteria.  You may find that to move such a system to a better location would be more costly than tying in with the local sewer system.  You may find that no where on your property is a suitable location for a septic system and conversion is needed.  There is also the possibility that you septic system needs major repairs due to misuse or age, and that a sewer conversion is a cheaper option.  There are several reasons why it might be time to convert. 

With increase housing development in the panhandle comes an opportunity to convert from septic to sewer systems. Photo: UF IFAS

Yet, across the state there has been some resistance to converting.  In 2020, a University of Florida research team conducted a social survey across the state to determine why many septic system owners were resistant to converting to a sewer system.  The survey was sent to 1,604 Florida residents in September of 2020 hoping to get 500 responses – usable responses were obtained from 517 people (32%).  The key findings were broken down into categories – explained below. 

  1. Knowledge.  The average score on the knowledge assessment was 54.7% – suggesting that they had some understanding of septic to sewer conversion topics.  64.8% could identify a graphic of a septic system, but only 57.1% could do the same for a sewer system.  82.8% could state who was responsible for maintaining a septic system, but only 48% could state who was responsible for the sewer.  Only 33.1% could correctly state how often a septic system needed to be pumped out.  They only slightly agreed that they understood the steps (or the costs) of converting from septic to sewer. 
  2. Attitude.  Respondents had only a slightly positive attitude towards septic to sewer conversion.  Most saw it as more useful and doable, but were not sure whether it was easy or not, and most felt it was too expensive. 
  3. Benefits and Barriers.  Most agreed that converting reduced the maintenance responsibility on the homeowner and freed property for other uses.  They agreed less that it made them a better neighbor.  The major barriers to converting were (a) availability to hook up, (b) upfront costs, (c) and having to pay a monthly sewer bill.  There was also a lack of interest in doing so.  Suggested barriers they do not see as a major problem included (a) the fear of large scale sewer spills, (b) and having time to think about doing the conversion. 
  4. Diffusion and Innovations.  Most agreed that sewer systems were more advantageous than septic systems – that they cause less trouble for the homeowner.  They also believed that converting to sewer was within their needs, values, and beliefs.  They believed that all communities should convert to sewer and that it was the responsible thing to do. 1

The results of the above study suggest that most Floridians believe that IF conversion is available, it is the right thing to do.  The primary reasons why they do not would include costs and having a monthly bill.  Many also felt there was no interest in doing so.  An interesting note here… in my community, there is a cost share program available for specific communities within the city limits.  Despite assistance with costs, no one has responded asking to participate.  This suggested that the monthly sewer bill and disinterest in the issue are still large barriers.  Another thought is that even with cost sharing, their portion of the bill is still outside of their price range.  In 2022 we attempted to have a focus group meeting with these communities to see which of the assumptions were correct – but there was little interest in participating in such a discussion group – so, we are not 100% sure why they do not participate. 

All that said, conversion to a sewer system is an option for those on a septic system and there are benefits in doing so.  As mentioned in the study, it takes much of the maintenance issues and concerns off of the property owner.  Though properly maintained septic systems do a good job of treating fecal bacteria, sewer systems usually have three levels of treatment (sometimes more) decreasing the chance of health advisories.  But they are not without their problems. 

The survey suggested that Floridians are less aware of how their sewers work than a septic systems.  In Part 3 we will look at how the sewer process operates.  If you are a property owner with a septic system and interested in converting to sewer, contact your county health department to see how the process is done locally, and whether there is a cost share program. 

1 Rampold, S. D., Krimsky, L., Telg, R. W., & Warner, L. (2021). Florida homeowners’ knowledge, perceptions, and informational needs regarding septic to sewer conversion. PIE2020/21-05. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education.

Closed due to bacteria. Photo: Rick O’Connor