In wake of sewage dump, Pinellas County Commission agrees to form task force

Published September 14 2016
Updated September 15 2016

After the massive dumping of sewage by municipalities and accidental overflow through manholes in the wake of Hurricane Hermine, the Pinellas County Commission agreed to form a task force so local utilities can share resources and prevent future disasters.

The task force, proposed by Chairman Charlie Justice, is intended to unite the 14 public sewer systems and three private providers in communication and response efforts.

"This is not a task force meant to point fingers or cast blame on any of our partners or ourselves, but how do we go forward to better address the situation so we're not seeing the same thing in another five to 10 years down the line," Justice said.

The massive three-day rainfall from Hermine revealed just how limited wastewater systems are, especially as local governments brace for rising sea levels and predictions of heavier rainy seasons over the next decade. Aging systems worsen the problem, as stormwater flows into the sewage infrastructure through manholes and weak pipes and further overwhelms wastewater treatment plants.

County Administrator Mark Woodard said the next step will be to select the elected officials and staff experts who will make up the task force. But one of the primary goals will be to conduct the first-ever inflow and infiltration study to evaluate the problem areas in all Pinellas cities as a whole.

This study could help draw, for the first time, a comprehensive map of where stormwater is infiltrating sewage systems most heavily throughout the area and which treatment plants need immediate capacity upgrades.

In the past, the 14 municipal wastewater systems within Pinellas County and the three private utilities — On Top of the World, Dynaflow and Tierra Verde — may have conducted their own inflow studies but without context of the county's overall needs.

The task force will also be able to help cities coordinate pumping truck services during storms, so areas with little overflow could share trucks and resources with areas that are overwhelmed.

Commissioner Ken Welch said there is an urgency to find ways to alleviate flooding and wastewater problems as governments along the Gulf Coast prepare for effects of climate change over the next decade.

"We've got this strategic goal of dealing with sea level rise and extreme weather, but the environment requires us to do some things more in the short term and not just say we're going to fix that in five to 10 years," he said.

Utilities director Randi Kim said there is $70 million budgeted over the next 10 years just for stormwater system improvements and upgrades to pumping stations in Pinellas County, but having a comprehensive overview of the needs of each city and utility could lower costs in the long term.

There are four projects in the county's capital improvement program to replace the pipes that pump wastewater from homes to treatment plants, and there is $2 million in the fiscal year 2017 budget for replacing deteriorating clay pipes in the wastewater system.

But still, "further study really is needed to identify some of the areas to address infiltration," Kim said.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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