ST. PETERSBURG — City officials believe the waste flowing through private lines into the city's public wastewater system is a big part of the Sunshine City's sewage crisis.
Officials don't know how big of a problem, though, partly because the city doesn't have an ordinance to require private homes and businesses to allow their lines to be inspected.
At Thursday's St. Petersburg City Council meeting, council members and city attorneys wrestled with how to get on (or under) private property to assess how many private pipes are rotting away, allowing storm and groundwater to leak into the system and overwhelm St. Petersburg's three sewer plants.
Residents "may not be aware that it is their responsibility to fix it … as long as it doesn't back up into their shower, it's not a concern," said Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley.
Of course, any program that would require residents to pay potentially thousands of dollars to replace their sewer lines faces plenty of political land mines, he said.
"It needs to be affordable," Tankersley said. "It needs to be enforceable and it needs to be consistent across the customer base so some groups don't feel discriminated against.
"We want to be partners with them, not come in and hammer them."
He listed some possible options: Sewer rate increases, special assessments, low-interest loans or rebates. There could also be penalties for those who don't comply.
City Council member Karl Nurse said mandatory inspections in problem areas like Midtown could yield the biggest bang for the buck. The city could pay plumbers to inspect private lines with cameras. Residents could repay the cost of those inspections in small increments in their monthly utility bills.
Assistant City Attorney Michael Dema said he was concerned that such an approach could violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches.
He recommended the city get residents to sign waivers agreeing to an inspection.
"That'll never work," Nurse said. "You're not going to get waivers. You're not going to get 20,000 people to sign that it's Thursday."
Tarpon Springs, Largo and Pinellas Park have ordinances that allow for city inspections of private lines, Dema said, but he advised that St. Petersburg should tread carefully.
One option could be pumping smoke through sewer pipes to identify leaks. Smoke, unlike cameras, Dema said, is incidental and wouldn't pose the same constitutional risk.
The city is working with public utilities across the county in a sewage task force formed after last summer's massive spills. Utility officials from Clearwater, Largo and Pinellas County attended Thursday's meeting to show their support for a countywide solution.
While most Pinellas County governments released sewage in 2016, the Sunshine City dumped exponentially more waste. Since the city's sewage crisis began in August 2015, about 200 million gallons have been released into local waterways and neighborhoods.
Mayor Rick Kriseman pledged to spend $304 million in the coming years to fix the problem.
Another rainy season is approaching, which makes alleviating the sewage crisis an urgent priority. But asking residents to do their part by fixing their own leaky pipes is politically risky — especially with the mayor running for re-election this year. Fortunately for him, a system for addressing private sewer lines won't be in place until 2018.
"That would give us enough time to inaugurate it," Tankersley said.
Cities around the country have developed programs to fix private sewer lines — sometimes with the help of taxpayer dollars — but so far no Florida city has done so.
How much of the city's sewage woes can be traced to private lines?
The Water Environment Federation, a wastewater industry trade group in Alexandria, Va., estimated that an average of 38 percent of ground and stormwater infiltrating leaky sewer pipes can be traced to private lines or "laterals." It could be as much as 75 percent of the problem in older systems.
That's why Nurse said the city must take the crucial first step of allowing the inspection of private lines.
"If we don't have an inspection system," he said, "the rest of this is just chit-chat."