In a research lab in Fort Pierce, all types of scientific breakthroughs happen.
"These samples are plant samples," said Rachel Brewton, research coordinator with Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. "This is well water. We are going to analyze both."
Brewton and staff took a close look at plant samples today with the aim at understanding the nutrients that seep from septic tanks into groundwater in Port St. Lucie.
More than 17,000 septic systems are still in service within the city’s Utility Service Area, according to its Water Quality Initiatives.
Contracted to look into the impacts of septic system spill-out in Port St. Lucie, Harbor Branch researchers have collected data during two dry season sampling events and two wet season sampling events. The last of the samples were collected Wednesday.
Nine wells were installed and monitored along with other wells and septic tanks throughout the city.
Preliminary findings, shared with CBS12 News on Thursday, show contaminated water was found in canals in areas of Port St. Lucie. The samples had high levels of nutrients.
But finding the source of the contaminants have sparked a blame-game that led CBS12 News to a canal in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Port St. Lucie.
Is it toxic algae, septic runoff or something else?
"I think it's difficult to point finger at one source. with confidence," said Malcolm McFarland, a researcher with Harbor Branch. "Septic systems, especially older septic systems are a potentially big problem."
McFarland is not tasked with spearheading the Port St. Lucie septic study.
The city's Sewer Expansion Program would ensure that failing septic systems could be taken out of service to avoid further contamination to the shallow water supply and that newly constructed homes and businesses would be required to connect to city sewer.
The results of the first phase of the Harbor Branch study have confirmed that elevated fecal indicator bacteria concentrations occurred at many sites in the North Fork. The greatest concentrations consistently occurred in densely urbanized areas, including White City Park and canals in CPSL (Sagamore, Hogpen Slough, Veterans Memorial, Elkcam, and Southbend/Horseshoe A-22).
City Council approved the initiation of the second phase of the study in the summer of 2018, in which Harbor Branch scientists will focus on a more detailed study of sites that showed higher levels of bacteria and other pollution. It also will study and monitor the interactions of septic systems and surface water and will help distinguish between nutrient sources, such as wastewater, stormwater runoff and fertilizers. The ultimate goal is to use the results from the second phase of the study to create local solutions.
"When a resident needs or desires to connect to city sewer, the homeowner can finance their connection fees over a 10-year period with no interest," according to the city.