The resources of the region also have made it popular for developers who have, over the past 50 years, built businesses and homes in the counties along the Gulf of Mexico north of the Everglades. An eight-county region stretching from Manatee County in the north to Collier County in the south has shown a population growth of more than 20% over the past decade alone; that is nearly a half-million people. Problems, however, sometimes follow explosive growth. In the case of southwest Florida, so many new people in such a relatively confined area have created a water pollution problem that real estate developers in the 1950's and 1960's likely never considered: sewage. Many of the waterfront communities in the region have relied on septic systems to treat wastewater. Septic tanks worked fine until population density began to increase dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s. Mother Nature could not handle so many small home lots with septic systems, especially considering a geography of flat, sandy terrain with a high-water table.
“Quarter-acre lots at sea level with septic tanks are bound to create issues,” said Gary Hubbard, P.E., utilities director for Charlotte County, Fla. “The tide affects the groundwater, so when sew- age is present in groundwater, the tide takes some of it out into the canals and the bay.”
Charlotte County has more than 162,000 residents, many of whom have septic systems and live near rivers or canals, or adjacent to Charlotte Harbor. Sewage seeping into local waterways led the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to declare Charlotte Harbor and the nearby Peace River to be “impaired waters.” High levels of nitrogen affect marine life and water sports, as well as property values. “From an economic stand- point, Charlotte Harbor is the lifeblood of the community; we have to protect it,” Hubbard said.