Despite uncertainties about the size, scope and cost — and unknowns about future state or federal funding — county and city leaders are forging ahead with plans for a sewage system to serve the area around Gemini Springs in DeBary.
“The whole project is mandated by the state,” DeBary Mayor Karen Chasez said.
The proposed system is supposed to help restore and improve the quality of the water bubbling up into the springs and ultimately the St. Johns River.
The land around the twin springs in DeBary — whose name, Gemini, springs from Greek mythology — is a Volusia County park that once offered swimming as one of its attractions. However, the county banned swimming in the spring runs more than 20 years ago because of high levels of bacteria harmful to humans.
The county government is a party in the DeBary sewage-system project because its water and sewer utilities serve DeBary, which has no utilities of its own.
Volusia County Utilities is partnering with the city to comply with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s orders.
Here is what you need to know:
Septic tanks as polluters
State officials blame the septic tanks of as many as 2,300 homes in the vicinity of Gemini Springs for pollution of the water. Environmental authorities in Tallahassee are demanding something be done to reduce the levels of nitrogen in the water springing from underground.
Environmental experts say 41 percent of the nitrogen comes from septic tanks, and thus the word is going out from the state capital to install advanced and more costly on-site septic systems or construct a central sewage system. That system now has an estimated price tag of $54 million, but that number could increase markedly, because of rising costs for materials and labor.
“Costs of construction have skyrocketed,” Terri Lowery, senior vice president of Jones Edmunds, said.
Jones Edmunds & Associates, a Gainesville consulting firm, conducted the feasibility study that concluded DeBary and the county should build a sewage system to replace the septic tanks.
“I’m glad to see a centralized system,” Chasez said. “I think that is the way to go.”
The county paid Jones Edmunds $250,000 for the study. The next step in the process is design and engineering.
Ready in 2023 or 2024
Design of the project may take 12-18 months to complete.
“We’re in design,” Volusia County Utilities Director Mike Ulrich said.
Once the design is finished, the county will solicit bids from contractors and award a contract, likely to the lowest and most responsible bidder.
“It will be shovel-ready in ’23, if not in ’24,” Brian Icerman, senior vice president and managing director of utilities infrastructure for Jones Edmunds, said.
Two or three years may seem like a long time to plan and build a major infrastructure project, but county and city leaders are already seeking out funding from higher up to offset the big-ticket cost. Lowery urged local officials to begin contacting Florida lawmakers and asking them to appropriate state dollars for expanding DeBary’s sewage system to an environmentally sensitive area.
“It doesn’t hurt to put the appropriation request in,” Lowery told the DeBary City Council. “Construction dollars will not become available before July 1 of next year.”
State, federal money needed
County and city officials emphasize they need cash from on high, or else the heavy burden of building the sewer system “would fall entirely on homeowners,” according to Ulrich.
How much would the cost per household be?
Again, that depends on the final capital cost of the project, minus grant funding from state and/or federal sources. Ulrich said the FDEP may pay as much as 75 percent of the construction cost, leaving 25 percent to be paid by the sewer system’s customers.
“There are state water-quality grants,” Lowery said.
Lowery said the sewage project may qualify for funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, the latest coronavirus stimulus bill passed by the Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in March. Under that $1.9 trillion measure, Florida is receiving $10.2 billion, and Volusia County is receiving $107 million.
In some instances, the per-home cost of connecting to a central sewer system may be as much as $15,000. Lowery cited a sewer project in Charlotte County, whose assessments may be $11,000 per home.
“It varies depending upon your community,” she said.
Local leaders say they hope to keep the individual assessments of homeowners to a maximum of $5,000.
The customers may pay the assessment in a lump sum upfront, or their share of the project’s cost may be paid in annual installments over 20 years, as a special assessment appearing on property-tax bills.
Yet another way for the new sewage customers to pay off their share of the project’s debt a little at a time may be a surcharge on monthly bills.
For example, Ulrich said, the average monthly sewage bill for a household using 5,000 gallons of water is now $47.61. He suggested a $28 charge could be added to the base bill as an alternative to the annual assessment.
DeBary City Council Member William Sell is one of those likely new customers.
“I’m disappointed I’m going to have to pay $28 a month for 20 years,” Sell said.
On a related note, Volusia County Utilities will increase its bills this fall. By a county ordinance, the water and sewage rates automatically increase annually, to match the federal consumer price index, plus 1 percent.
How many homes?
In addition to dealing with spiraling costs for construction and possible delays in securing supplies, the ultimate cost of the sewer system will also be determined by the number of homes connected to it.
“If you look at the numbers, it’s a moving target,” Ulrich said.
Construction of the system will be in phases, planners say, likely beginning with the 700 or so homes closest to Gemini Springs. As sewage service becomes available, homeowners will be required to connect, and they will be responsible for the cost of hooking up.
Improvement in phases
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the septic tanks of as many as some 2,300 homes around the springs may be responsible for loading 14,270 pounds of nitrogen into the springs each year.
The FDEP has set an intermediate goal of reducing that volume of nitrogen by at least 30 percent — or 4,281 pounds per year — within five years after the sewer system is operating. Additional reductions are set to follow.
A modern sewage system would capture the wastewater now going into the ground and would cleanse it, Lowery said.
“The centralized systems are getting 95-percent nitrogen removal,” she said.
In the case of Gemini Springs, the FDEP is calling for the phased reduction of that volume of nitrogen over the next 20 years. The zone encompassing the springs and the estimated 2,300 septic tanks believed to be sources of nitrogen pollution of the water is known as the “primary focus area.”
Ulrich said construction of the planned sewage system would probably begin with “the septic tanks in the immediate vicinity of Gemini Springs.” That figure is approximately 700.
Yet, the actual number of homes to be connected to the sewer is one of the unknowns in the project and its final cost.
For her part, Chasez urged Ulrich and the county to “move quickly through the design process,” and progress toward actual construction.
“We need that first phase to be as successful as possible,” Chasez said.
It’s state law
The demand for action is based on a state law enacted five years ago. Under the Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act passed by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2016, Gemini Springs is one of 30 “outstanding Florida springs” that warrant special attention.
The list of 30 outstanding springs also includes Blue Spring in Orange City and DeLeon Springs. Volusia County Utilities Director Mike Ulrich noted Gemini Springs are “impaired because of a biological imbalance caused by excessive concentrations of nitrates in the water.”
Once again, because the state government is pressing for remedial action, state funding will likely cover part of the cost of a sewage system, but how much is not known.
The DeBary City Council has also recently hired a lobbyist to augment its voices in pressing the Florida Legislature to appropriate generous sums for the capital outlay to lessen the burden on homeowners.
“It’s our public duty to do whatever we can for our residents,” City Manager Carmen Rosamonda said.
Will swimming come back?
Looking ahead to the time when the sewage system becomes operational, Chasez said city, county and state officials will check and see if their investment is paying off in the form of cleaner water.
“Over 15 years, there will be intense testing to determine if nitrogen is decreasing,” she noted.
Yet, even if the nitrogen levels drop, Ulrich said there is no guarantee Gemini Springs will once again be a place for people to cool off on a hot day.
“[I]t’s difficult to say whether those sole improvements will entirely reduce the amount of bacteria necessary to promote public swimming. Additional measures may be necessary. But one thing is clear … doing nothing will not improve the current condition of the springs water quality,” Ulrich wrote in an email response to a query from The Beacon.