Sunday, September 23, 2018
Politics

PolitiFact Florida: Can Rick Baker thank the weather for leaving office without a sewage crisis?

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has deflected some blame for the city's sewage problem onto Mother Nature, saying former Mayor Rick Baker had an easier time avoiding sewage spills because he didn't face as much severe rain.

The sewage crisis has become the central issue of the Aug. 29 primary election, exacerbated by the 2015 closure of the Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility.

In June, the Tampa Bay Times documented a large disparity in the amount of sewage spilled between the mayors: About 1.5 million gallons spilled under Baker in nine years, and 186 million gallons spilled under Kriseman in the 2015-16 summers.

"Clearly, there is no comparison in the numbers," Kriseman said at the time. "But we also had wet weather events that he did not experience. He went through significant periods of drought during his time as mayor."

Since that interview, Kriseman has accepted responsibility for his response to the sewage crisis.

We were still intrigued by Kriseman's explanation about the weather, so we looked into it.

Comparing rain totals

Average annual rainfall at Albert Whitted Airport was 45.4 inches from 2001-09 under Baker, according to National Weather Service data.

The average total from 2014-16 under Kriseman: 53.74 inches.

Excessive rain events are also relevant to consider, said Dustin Norman of the National Weather Service, given the sewage capacity issue.

"If you get an inch and a half a day for 30 days that's way different than 40 inches in one day," Norman said.

St. Petersburg has been hit with several big storms since 2015, when the first major spill of Kriseman's tenure occurred.

In 2015, nearly 15 inches of rain fell between mid July and early August, causing the release of 31.5 million gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage. Tropical Storm Colin hit the next summer, leading to 10 million gallons being dumped or spilled in June 2016.

The worst event was Hurricane Hermine, which swamped aging sewer pipes in 2016 with 8.1 inches of rain. St. Petersburg reported spilling at least 151 million gallons of sewage as a result of Hermine.

Baker experienced his own share of wet weather events.

When four hurricanes struck Florida in 2004, Tampa Bay avoided a direct hit but received a large amount of rainfall. The Tampa-St. Petersburg area got 12 to 14 inches of rain in August 2004, which experts said was notably high.

Finally, we wanted to know the typical monthly rainfall total for the airport and how many times the city exceeded it.

Daniel Brouillette, a climate services specialist at Florida State University, compiled monthly rainfall totals from the airport from January 1987 to December 2016. He considered any monthly total above 11.14 inches of rain as "extremely wet."

Under Kriseman, five of his 43 months in office (about 11.6 percent) exceeded the mean of 11.14 inches. Under Baker, eight of his 105 months in office (about 7.6 percent) exceeded the mean.

So Kriseman experienced a greater percentage of "extremely wet" months, but not dramatically so.

Root of the spills

Kriseman and his team have described the rain events of 2015 as historic. But Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators said descriptions along those lines "were not based in fact or reality."

The draft report, which the Times reported on in July, places much of the blame for the sewage spills on the Kriseman administration, as well as on the past two decades of city leadership, which includes the Baker administration from 2001-10.

The report pointed to the April 2015 closure of the Albert Whitted plant and Kriseman's choice not to reopen the plant to alleviate the sewage crisis after the heavy rains of August 2015.

The investigation is ongoing.

Comparing dry spells

Kriseman's team said the point about Baker going through "significant periods of drought" is bolstered by Baker referring to a 2002 drought in his book The Seamless City and a 2007 Water Resources Department memo that discussed water restrictions due to lack of rainfall.

Again, we turned to experts and data. Brian Fuchs, an associate geoscientist and climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, examined Pinellas County's recent drought history.

Baker encountered the tail end of the worst period of drought in 17 years when he took office in April 2001. When drought conditions lifted that summer, there was no drought for the next five years.

Pinellas County remained drought-free until January 2007 (excluding a short period of minimal drought for just 1 percent of the county in summer 2006). The county experienced periods of moderate drought in 2007 and 2008, but none that matched the intensity of 2000-01.

As for Kriseman, his first two years were relatively normal. Moderate drought covered the county in late 2016.

"Overall, both mayors had both wet and drought periods during their tenures in office," Brouillette said.

Kriseman's explanation is exaggerated. While heavy rains played a role in the sewage spills, both the handling of the Albert Whitted plant as well as decades of city neglect put St. Petersburg's massive sewage problems into motion.

We rate the claim Mostly False.

Contact Allison Graves at [email protected] Follow @AllisonBGraves.

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