Blue-green algae bloomed in the Feather Sound region of Old Tampa Bay two weeks ago and refused to dissipate, the latest sign that Pinellas County has a problem with water pollution.
In recent years, as declining property values have eaten away at the county's budget, Pinellas has slashed funding for monitoring stormwater — runoff that flows from yards and sidewalks into ditches and retention ponds before spilling out into the bay.
The consequences are turning up in lab tests, but many, like the algae in Old Tampa Bay, are visible without a microscope.
Currently, more than 70 percent of the waterways in Pinellas have such high levels of nutrient pollution and fecal bacteria that they don't meet new water quality standards.
And unlike some cities that have updated their equipment, Pinellas County still has 28 miles of stormwater pipes that are crumbling and collapsing. When they do, they can bring down road beds and wiring, leaving cavities so large that some residents have mistakenly reported them as sinkholes.
When the stormwater system breaks down, the response is slower than it was in the past. Between 2009 and 2011, the Transportation and Stormwater Division lost 119 staff positions and more than 60 pieces of equipment. Currently, Pinellas has a three-year backlog of more than 500 work requests for jobs such as cleaning storm drains and repairing pipes.
Unlike many of the 24 cities within its borders, Pinellas does not charge residents in unincorporated areas a separate fee for stormwater management. Instead, much of the funding for staff and equipment comes out of the general budget, competing for attention against other, often more visible, projects. Some maintenance is paid for by the gas tax.
That could change. This month, the Pinellas County Commission reserved the right to charge residents for stormwater management. The staff is working on an ordinance that would propose a fee for homeowners and businesses. Though some commissioners are nervous at the thought of adding a new fee to residents' bills, others see it as inevitable.
"We have a responsibility and will be fined if we don't meet these new standards," Commissioner Susan Latvala said at a recent meeting, referring to tougher regulations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that took effect in 2012.
"We have to have the money to pay for it and general revenue taxes don't do that," she said. "What we need from the community when we have this conversation is support of a new tax or fee."
Exactly how much the county might charge is unclear. CDM Smith, an engineering firm the county hired to analyze the extent of its stormwater problem, is still completing its report. Due in April, the report should give the county an idea of how much work needs to be done and what it could cost, said Kelli Levy, who oversees stormwater management for Pinellas.
In Clearwater, which has the highest stormwater utility fee in the county, the owner of a single-family home pays $13.40 a month. In St. Petersburg, residents pay $6.84 a month, according to the city's website; in Dunedin, the fee is $9.30.
"They're providing a higher level of service than the county is at this time because they have fees in place to support what they're doing," Levy said.
Initially, she said, county staff looked into creating a countywide stormwater fee that would cover the cost of maintaining the major waterways like Curlew Creek and Long Branch Creek. Some cities were interested, she said, but there's a prevailing sense that the county needs to get its act together first in the unincorporated areas.
The board also is contemplating bringing back the Adopt-a-Pond program, which disappeared after the economy began to crumble. Under this program, residents and the county staff worked together to maintain private ponds, many of which are used to hold runoff but do not fall under the county's purview.
Lake Sylvia in Seminole was once part of the program, but its condition has worsened in recent years, leaving fish dead and homeowners holding their noses.
Motor oil, gasoline, pet waste, sediment and "anything else that can float, dissolve, be swept away," is going into the lake, said John Reyner, whose home is one of 37 that looks out onto the water. Reyner recently asked the commission to help maintain the private lake, claiming that it is being used as a stormwater retainer by nearby homes.
How to handle environmental problems in private lakes is a "tricky issue," Levy said, and an increasing problem, as the county has hundreds of them.
It's one of the many issues the county could end up addressing later this spring.
"We told the board that this was a journey and this problem was developed over 20 years," she said. "We're not going to solve it in a couple of years."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.