The Village of Estero’s Utilities Expansion Program Progresses Slowly

Part 1: Background and History

Are you aware of the slow progress of the Village of Estero’s Utilities Expansion Program? Seeing such an essential program moving at a snail’s pace is concerning. The expansion of utilities is important for the village’s growth and development and for the convenience and comfort of its residents.

Ongoing studies by FGCU and water conservation groups identified unacceptable fecal matter levels in the Estero River. Old, outdated, poorly maintained septic systems contributed to some of this fecal matter.

Individuals and the Village of Estero Staff and Council members discussed converting Estero’s septic systems to sanitary sewers after Hurricane Irma in September 2017. The flooding caused many septic systems to overflow and discharge into the waterways. All saw the need to convert the septic systems and help ensure our water gets and stays clean. Realistically, it will take decades after conversion to see a marked improvement in our water!

While many homes have septic systems (, vacant lots are also available where homeowners plan to build their dream homes. Other houses were destroyed in prior storms and will one day be torn down and rebuilt.

More information was shared at a Bonita Springs Town Hall Water Meeting on Wednesday, October 16th, 2019, and at Bonita Springs City Hall. South Florida Water Management District Board Chairman Chauncey Goss, FGCU Water School scientist Dr. Mike Parsons, and Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane conducted a forum on water quality moderated by Bonita Springs Mayor Peter Simmons. Many were unaware of the magnitude of the septic system problem.

Numbers that were thrown out stated, “… Estero has 400 active single-family homes septic systems, Bonita Springs has 1,000 active single-family homes septic systems, and there are many in East Lee County and San Carlos Park (South of Alico Rd.).”

The Q&A session focused on what we could do to “… mitigate the threats to our water quality.” It was a great informational session!

A Naples Daily News article dated September 11th, 2019, highlighted the need to convert outdated septic systems to sanitary sewers. Estero Mayor Bill Ribble, at the time, was quoted in the article, “We’ve got to step up to the plate and make this happen like other counties are doing.” The Council’s action was to hire Banks Engineering “… for design and research on expanding water and sewer lines into areas of the Village without those utilities…”

In an ECCL leadership (now Engage Estero) February 2020 meeting with Lee County officials on an unrelated topic, then County Manager Desjarlais reported, “… there are over 100,000 septic systems in Lee County … Many are over 50 years old … There are high tech systems to replace the outdated systems … Some are high enough above the water table and in good soil so that they do not need to be replaced … With Estero’s elevation, soil type, and near the Estero River, they will need to be eliminated and connected to the sanitary sewer …”

Further research determined that Estero has 811 lots with septic systems. Additionally, there are 820 package plants lots. An EPA Wastewater Technology Fact Sheet (EPA 832-F-00-016, September 2000) Package Plants help us understand. “Package plants are pre-manufactured treatment facilities used to treat wastewater in small communities or individual properties.

According to manufacturers, package plants can be designed to treat flows as low as 0.002 MGD or as high as 0.5 MGD, although they more commonly treat flows between 0.01 and 0.25 MGD (Metcalf & Eddy, 1991). The most common types of package plants are extended aeration plants, sequencing batch reactors, oxidation ditches, contact stabilization plants, rotating biological contactors, and physical/chemical processes (Metcalf & Eddy, 1991). This fact sheet focuses on the first three, all of which are biological aeration processes.”

Estero Bay Village, Sunny Grove, and Cypress Bend communities use package plants. The plant would discharge to the sanitary sewer as the plant is already connected to each homeowner.

The Village contracted with Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) in April 2021 to monitor the water quality in and around the Estero River for the Village of Estero. They have monitoring sites at 4 locations along the river. Of many conclusions from the data analysis, the disturbing fact was the amount of fecal matter in the river. While not all the fecal matter resulted from septic systems, some could be attributed to wildlife.

It is disturbing that the Calusa Waterkeeper’s continued monitoring of the Estero River indicates there is still bacterial and fecal contamination in the river. Readings demonstrate higher-than-acceptable levels of contamination.

The Estero River, together with others, flows into Estero Bay. The area around the Bay is characterized by low, flat land dominated by wetlands and slow, sheet-flow drainage patterns. The seagrass level is down to only 4% of its historical range, replaced by algae due to high nitrogen levels that have increased by 250%. Captain Pierce, Calusa Waterkeeper, feels it is a “classic tragedy because everyone contributes a little bit to the overall impact of what we are facing, and no one is responsible for the clean-up!” 

The Village hired a Construction Manager in the summer of 2021 to advance the Village septic to sewer conversion. Banks Engineering published their design and provided a rough estimate of the total cost for each phase and a rough individual cost for each homeowner. The contracted results document) was released in late 2021. Individual homeowner costs ranged up to $70k each and an additional $3k to hook up from the road to their house. An unknown cost is also likely for cleaning up the current septic system, filling it in, and capping the well.

Kayak on the Estero River
Kayak on the Estero River

Property and homeowners’ concerns are focused on the timing of this conversion effort. If they build now and want an occupancy certificate, they must install a septic system and drill a well (if there is no potable water). These two requirements could cost between $25 and $40k. In addition, many worry about when sanitary sewer and potable water will be available on their street.

Because they will be required to connect when that occurs, and the cost involved could be between $35 and $70k, many residents/lot owners have a difficult financial decision. A schedule and timeline are urgently needed so residents can make informed decisions!

We must take action to speed up the progress of this program so that the village can enjoy the benefits of modern infrastructure. Let us all work together to urge the authorities to prioritize this program and ensure it moves faster.

Four Part Series

Background and History
Cost, CIP, and Grants
Schedule - Planned and Actual

The information in this article was researched by Mark Novitski and James Root, Consultants to Engage Estero and Allan Bowditch Chief Communications Officer.

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