Sunday, April 22, 2018
News Roundup

Is the downtown building boom fueling St. Petersburg's sewage crisis? The answer is no

ST. PETERSBURG — Cranes dot the downtown skyline as high-rise condominium and apartment towers sprout into the air, the latest sign of the city's renaissance.

Tropicana Field is also fertile ground for growth. Within 10 years or so, whether the Tampa Bay Rays are still there or not, the 85-acre stadium site will likely be covered with even more development: apartments and condos, bars and restaurants.

That's a lot of toilets, sinks, showers, dishwashers and washing machines coming to downtown St. Petersburg, the stuff of everyday life.

And all of it will drain into the city's beleaguered sewer system.

That has residents wondering: Will all that downtown development add to the stress already felt by the city's aging sewer pipes and overwhelmed sewage plants?

"Everybody brings it up," said Walter Donnelly of the Alliance for Bayway Communities Civic Association.

The city's consultants have the data to answer that question: No, rapid downtown development has not worsened St. Petersburg's sewage woes — and should not worsen it.

Over the next four years, downtown development is projected to add about 860,000 gallons a day to the sewage flow destined for the city's Southwest plant. That facility handles sewage from downtown and the neighborhoods south to the Skyway Bridge, according to a December report by consulting report Brown and Caldwell.

The average sewage flow during a typical dry day is about 13 to 14 million gallons. The permit for the Southwest plant allows it to handle an average flow of 20 million gallons a day (and a massive expansion of the plant is underway.)

So adding 860,000 a day to that flow is not expected to cause much of a strain, said interim Water Resources Director John Palenchar.

"It really is kind of a blip," he said. "We can handle an additional 1 to 2 (million gallons a day) from development. What we can't handle is 20 to 30 (million gallons a day) from inflow and infiltration."

So it's not the development above the ground that's the problem. It's still the pipes under the ground. When it rains, leaky pipes and manholes allow excess water into the sewer system. But it's not all the extra toilets downtown.

"It is the rain getting into our system that is causing us to have to increase capacity," Palenchar said, "not the small volume added by new development."

Significantly more stress was put on the Southwest plant by the city's decision to close the waterfront Albert Whitted sewer plant in 2015, which used to serve downtown.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection recently concluded that shuttering the downtown plant exacerbated the city's sewage discharges during the last two rainy seasons in 2015 and 2016, causing about 200 million gallons of sewage to be released into local waterways, roadways, much of it into Tampa Bay itself.

Mayor Rick Kriseman has pledged more than $300 million to nearly double the capacity of the Southwest plant. A lot of that work could be done by this summer.

But, as residents continue to debate the city's sewage issues, the theory that downtown's building boom was to blame has been tough to counter.

Donnelly and the Alliance for Bayway Communities Civic Association first began to investigate the city's sewer crisis after more than 30 million gallons of waste was spilled near Eckerd College in 2015. Initially, he suspected new construction might be to blame.

"It's the natural first order question to ask," he said. "Look, we've seen all these buildings go up."

But now the organization knows the real culprit: "That's not the issue at all. The whole problem was Albert Whitted."

Council member Steve Kornell has heard the same theories from constituents, that downtown development exacerbated the crisis. He too agrees that it was leaky pipes, not growth that led to the sewage overflows.

"It's a maintenance issue, not over-development," Kornell said, noting that the city's population hasn't grown much in the last few decades. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the city's population at 257,083 in 2015.

But Kornell, who represents the neighborhoods surrounding the Southwest plant, does worry that too much of the city's sewage burden is being placed on that facility.

The Southwest plant not only handles the extra sewage output from downtown, and is also being readied for a project that would convert sewage into methane gas and high-grade fertilizer.

"All that sewage from downtown does go to Southwest," Kornell said, "and that does concern me a little bit."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-7882. [email protected]

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