Hillsborough commissioners propose regional task force on sewage spills
Hillsborough County commissioners voted Wednesday to propose a regional task force to discuss how storm-driven flooding threatens to overwhelm local sewer systems.
“We’ve talked about regional approaches to a lot of different things,” said commissioner Sandra Murman, who proposed having Hillsborough utilities officials talk with their counterparts in surrounding counties and cities. “I think we need to look at a longer-term plan going down the road to prevent these spillages and other incidents from happening.”
Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission officials said water quality samples taken from 108 sites around the bay, including some in Pinellas County and close to St. Petersburg, since Hurricane Hermine have found levels of bacteria that are a little above average but still below state standards.
“The story here is not much a bacteria story because of the size of the bay, because of the recirculation and the flushing of the bay,” said Sam Elrabi, the EPC’s water division director. Tampa Bay flushes itself out completely as often as every nine days and at least every 30 days.
In the long run, elevated levels of nutrients in the bay could stress sea grass beds or trigger algae blooms or red tide, but Elrabi said it would be difficult to tie one of those to a specific event that had taken place six months earlier.
Hillsborough County Public Utilities director George Cassady said the county’s sewer system came through Hermine without discharging any waste, but he noted that Hillsborough got a lot less rain than Pinellas.
“We did very well in the storm,” Cassady said. “We’re fortunate in one regard that our systems are robust enough that they have the capacity … to be able to hold larger volumes of water associated with the storms.”
Hillsborough's system also is much newer than Tampa’s or St. Petersburg’s, which means fewer problems with cracked pipes that allow stormwater to get in and overwhelm storage and treatment facilities. And the county has invested in system upgrades over the last five years.
That said, Cassady said, one of Hermine’s feeder bands sat over Pinellas County for a long time.
“If that same thing had happened to us, it’s very likely that one or more of our treatment plants might have been overwhelmed,” Cassady said. “I don’t know that any system would be capable of handling 36 hours of continuous rainfall.”