Hurricane season starts next month. Will it also be the start of sewage season?
Tampa Bay utility officials have their collective fingers crossed, hoping to avoid a repeat of last year's calamity: Glancing blows from Tropical Storm Colin and Hurricane Hermine, combined with record rainfall, overwhelmed sewer pipes and plants across the region.
Sewage seeped through manhole covers and flowed over residential streets. St. Petersburg alone sent 161.5 million gallons of waste gushing into the Tampa Bay itself (and a total of 200 million gallons going back to August 2015). Those disastrous spills fouled the bay, left local officials reeling and sparked state and federal investigations.
Seven months later, public works crews have been working hard to get ready for the new storm season, which officially starts June 1. Will it be enough to stave off another sewage crisis?
"I think we're doing what we can to put ourselves in a better position," said Flip Mellinger, Pasco County assistant county administrator for utilities. "Is it enough? I don't even want to answer that question."
Last year's sewage crisis has shaken the region's confidence in its infrastructure.
"We never want to say 100 percent," said Largo environmental services director Irvin Kety.
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St. Petersburg Public Works director Claude Tankersley said he hopes the $51 million the Sunshine City has poured into improving the city's leaky, overwhelmed sewage system will be enough to avoid another headline-generating summer and fall.
"I pray every day that we have a normal (rainy) season," Tankersley said.
Their apprehension is understandable. The last two summers have not been kind to the Tampa Bay region.
Sewage ended up where it shouldn't in almost every city and county — but St. Petersburg was by far the worst offender. In August 2015, the city saw the first of a series of massive spills. By September 2016, St. Petersburg had spilled or discharged about 200 million gallons.
Ever since Hermine soaked the bay area in September, city crews have been furiously repairing pipes, adding capacity and digging deep disposal wells to help blunt the impact of another record-setting rainy season.
St. Petersburg's sewage crisis prompted state and federal investigations, some of which are ongoing, and embroiled Mayor Rick Kriseman in a political mess that could haunt him as he runs for re-election this fall — especially if the sewage system overflows once again.
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St. Petersburg wasn't alone. Tampa, Clearwater, Largo and Pasco and Pinellas counties all saw significant overflows last year.
Tampa's 2.1 million gallons in discharges came mostly after power to the city's wastewater plant was cut off during Hurricane Hermine.
The city has rented additional generators to upgrade the plant's emergency electrical capacity by 25 percent, said Tampa Wastewater Department director Eric Weiss. Crews are also cleaning debris out of pipes, he said, to ensure waste doesn't get backed up.
The city is also looking at pumping sewage during wet weather from more vulnerable areas to better equipped parts of the system to handle storm-swollen flows. Early computer modeling indicates such a plan could work, Weiss said.
But officials believe Tampa is in good shape heading into the summer. The city's Howard F. Curren plant had plenty of capacity to handle Hermine, Weiss said.
"We treated every drop that came in here except for that 11-minute power outage," he said.
The extra generators will cost $200,000 a year to rent. Eventually, Weiss said, the city will pay for a permanent upgrade "just to be safe."
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In Clearwater, Hermine overwhelmed the city's Marshall Street sewage plant. Raw sewage entered the facility, causing electrical damage and briefly shutting down the plant.
The city has bought more pumps to handle increased flow during storms, said Clearwater Public Utilities director David Porter, which should be in place by late July or early August.
Clearwater has also spent at least $500,000 in fixing leaky sewer pipes, he said.
"I feel confident that we won't repeat last year," Porter said. "That was kind of a fluke."
Largo saw its sewer system overloaded during both Tropical Storm Colin in June 2016 and Hurricane Hermine in August and September 2016.
A 5 million gallon storage tank that could handle peak flows during storms should be ready by early June, in a project started before last year's storms. Largo has also relined pipes and upgraded lift stations, said Irvin Kety, the city's environmental services director.
Along with electrical upgrades, upgraded lift stations and main sewer lines, the city has spent about $80 million on sewer improvements, he said.
"Hopefully, that will give us a big advantage over last year," Kety said.
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Hillsborough County Utilities didn't experience any sewage problems last summer, but Pinellas County Utilities had several discharges totaling millions of gallons.
Pinellas County Utilities increased funding for sewer improvement projects by about $5.5 million, raising total expenditures on new sewer infrastructure by 24 percent to $22.5 million.
Pinellas' priorities have been relining a large pipe near Joe's Creek in Seminole and fixing sewer line irregularities that led to manhole flooding last year, said Public Utilities director Randi Kim.
The county is also undertaking a major study of its sewage system: It will use 80 flow meters to find out where stormwater or groundwater is seeping into pipes and cutting into the county's treatment capacity, especially at its South Cross Bayou plant.
"We'll be much better prepared this season," Kim said.
In Pasco County, which had nearly 1 million gallons spill last year, engineering director Michael Carballa said the county will replace aging filters at its Embassy Hills plant in Port Richey. The county has spent millions relining and replacing aging pipes.
Mellinger, the assistant county administrator for utilities, said last summer's intense rains were an anomaly — and he doesn't expect a repeat.
"I don't think we would have an issue with discharges," he said. "If you have a 100-year rain event, you're never designed for it. If you designed and built a plant to handle that kind of flow, you'd be paying an astronomical price."
Pasco County originally reported nearly 37 million gallons of sewage discharges to the state, but those totals mistakenly included fully treated wastewater, said Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Shannon Herbon. That means the wastewater was cleaner than first believed and did not pose a public health risk.
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St. Petersburg's sewage crisis generated national headlines and dominated local politics for the better part of two years.
After some initial resistance, Kriseman pledged to spend $304 million over the next five years on a wide array of projects to increase the city's ability to treat and dispose of sewage.
Tankersley, the public works director, maintained at the May 4 City Council meeting that the increased capacity and injection wells would be ready, at least for emergency service, earlier in the summer.
But then contractors and his own staff contradicted him, saying the improvements at the Southwest plant wouldn't be complete until the end of August.
Last week, Tankersley wasn't so sure anymore that the sewer system would be ready by mid-summer for a major rain event.
"It's feasible, but not guaranteed," Tankersley wrote in a text Thursday. "We're pushing. We're trying and we're not giving up hope. But there's not a guarantee that we will have the ability to have full use of the filters and injection wells by the end of June."
Tankersley said he hopes to have more definitive dates by this week's council meeting.
The shifting dates concerned some council members.
"I do feel like you're talking in circles," council member Amy Foster said at the May 4 meeting.
Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]