Lack of capacity, deteriorating sewer lines, broken equipment, and an immense amount of rain are to blame for overwhelmed sewer systems that have dumped more than 248 million gallons of untreated and partially treated wastewater into Tampa Bay and other Pinellas waterways so far this year.
Those explanations, provided to the county’s legislative delegation during a fact-finding session Tuesday, did not sit well with at least one delegation member.
“I get frustrated when I hear excuses and I hear climate change,” state Rep. Kathleen Peters said.
Some cities, she said, had neglected their duty to keep up with infrastructure improvements. As an example, Peters referred to the Penny for Pinellas. That tax, she said, was to improve infrastructure, yet very few projects had to do with improving cities’ sewer systems. In a county that worries about tropical weather and potential hurricanes, making sure wastewater and storm water systems were ready for such rain events should have been an easy call. Instead, the money went elsewhere.
“I don’t want to hear excuses anymore,” Peters said, adding that she wasn’t making her statements “to attack anyone.”
Peters made her statements toward the end of a special delegation meeting called for members to hear why the county, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Largo had overflows during the Hurricane Hermine. The meeting is the first of at least two. The delegation plans to meet again in 60 days to hear from the public and to get a progress report and more details from the county and the cities.
The sheer magnitude of the various overflows came into sharp focus when Mary Yeargen, the southwest district director for the state Department of Environmental Protection, laid out the numbers.
In 2014, the entire state of Florida saw 137 million gallons of overflow; in 2015, the state amount was 151 gallons; so far this year, the statewide overflow is about 262 million gallons. So far this year, Pinellas County has had overflows totaling more than 248 million gallons.
More than half the wastewater discharge for the entire state of Florida so far this year, came from Pinellas County, she said.
“We don’t want to see this happen again,” Yeargen said.
Officials from the county and all three cities said they have projects in place to improve and expand their wastewater systems. But it’s not a quick fix. Many of the improvements will take years to get into place.
And, they said, fixing the publicly owned pipes is just part of the problem. A lot of the problem comes from so-called lateral pipes — the ones that run from peoples’ homes and businesses to the street where they meet the government-owned pipes.
Many of those lateral pipes have deteriorated and allow rainwater to flow into the sewer system, which helps cause the system to become overwhelmed.
Irvin Kety, Largo’s environmental services director, estimated inflow from those privately owned lateral pipes was responsible for up to half of the rainwater incursion that causes many of the problems. While Largo is improving its system, unless the privately owned pipes are fixed, “we’re still going to have overflow,” Kety said.
“We’ve got to get a handle on those private systems,” Kety said.
The problem is, the cities can’t go on private property and fix privately owned pipes. Homeowners will have to foot those bills. Kety said it’s hard to estimate what that might cost. It depends on the length of the pipe, whether it has to replaced, and whether it’s under a concrete drive. But, he said, a ballpark figure could put the cost at $2,000 to $3,000.
State Sen. Jack Latvala suggested cities might pass an ordinance requiring homeowners to get the lateral lines evaluated before they sell their homes.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he had given a sample ordinance to the city attorney for consideration. That could come before the St. Petersburg City Council.
Both he and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos suggested the delegation could help pass a statute or set up a rebate or loan program to help homeowners pay for the repairs.