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Tropical Storm Colin exposes inadequate sewers across Tampa Bay

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn speaks at a press conference held to announce a new reward program designed specifically to help curb gun violence in Hillsborough County at the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. The program is a gun bounty program, as opposed to a gun buyback program. With a buyback, law enforcement offers cash for guns turned in. With a gun bounty, law enforcement offers higher rewards in exchange for information leading to illegal firearms on the streets.
Published Jun. 9, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Tropical Storm Colin's heavy rains across Tampa Bay washed away any pretense that the region's infrastructure can withstand a hurricane, exposing inadequate sewer systems in Tampa, St. Petersburg and smaller beach towns.

Manholes popped, releasing gushing torrents of untreated sewage. Rain overwhelmed aging pipes, some of which date back to the Jazz Age. Rivers and Tampa Bay were fouled with dirty water.

As of late Wednesday, St. Petersburg was still pumping millions of gallons of partly treated wastewater into Tampa Bay. Tampa dumped more than 350,000 gallons of untreated sewage into the Hills­borough River on Tuesday.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn on Wednesday acknowledged his city's failings.

"Obviously, we've got an aging system," Buckhorn said. "We're trying to invest in that system. We need City Council to approve those types of investments."

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman didn't respond to a request for comment.

Stung by a social media outcry after similar dumps and spills last summer, St. Petersburg officials refused to release estimates of how much sewage had been dumped into the bay, saying there was no public record.

Eventually, however, they said up to 3.3 million gallons had been piped one-quarter of a mile into the bay by noon on Wednesday.

For the second straight year, St. Petersburg's sewer backups after heavy rains show residents must pay higher rates, said council member Karl Nurse.

"The only thing standing between us and higher rates is political courage," he said.

Nurse plans to introduce proposals Thursday to spend $29 million in BP money and county and city dollars over the next several years to repair and replace the leaky pipes that sanitation officials say are the cause of the city's sewage woes.

The decision to close the Albert Whitted sewage plant on downtown's waterfront, approved in 2011 under former Mayor Bill Foster and executed in 2015 under Kriseman, removed millions of gallons of treatment capacity. Even though the shuttered plant's tanks have proved crucial in providing extra storage, they may soon be closed. A Texas fish-farming company wants to use them to grow fish.

In Tampa, the city is close to finishing a $7.3 million, multi-year project to upgrade a wastewater pumping station to prevent future spills.

"At a minimum, it will significantly help," said Eric Weiss, the city's wastewater director, referring to the expanded pumping station near the Tampa Convention Center.

Tampa officials said they are looking into coordinating the work of pumping stations upstream to slow the flow of wastewater during future storms.

One thing Tampa officials didn't do was notify its residents and ask them — as St. Pete Beach did after a wastewater discharge there — to refrain from unnecessary water use to relieve pressure on the sewers.

Under the circumstances, "any call like that we would have put out wouldn't have helped," Weiss said.

St. Petersburg officials didn't notify residents either — it didn't want to inconvenience them, said Claude Tankersley, the city's public works administrator. And, like Tampa, it wouldn't have made much of a difference, he said.

"The worst thing we can do is to inconvenience our citizens by telling them they can't use their bathroom," Tankersley said. Not flushing toilets, he said, would have been "unpleasant."

Still, if St. Petersburg had issued an alert, it could have reduced the overflow by about 10 percent, Tankersley said.

In tiny St. Pete Beach, officials alerted residents early Tuesday to refrain from nonessential uses of water. By 6 p.m., flow had returned to an "even keel," said city public works director Mike Clarke.

"I'm going to call it a good deal," Clarke said of the alert. "I would say this is now a tool in our kit bag."

A fight over whether to use the BP money is brewing in St. Petersburg. Nurse and council member Steve Kornell are eager to tap into about $5.8 million that remains from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon settlement.

But council member Darden Rice thinks the BP money would be better spent on bracing for climate change.

"Using BP money looks good politically, but it's going to take a lot more than that to address our sewers," she said.

In a Tuesday statement, Kriseman said a $3.4 million study should be completed and that some upgrades are planned. He added, however, that he "inherited" the problem from previous mayors.

His spokesman, Ben Kirby, who initially said sewage dumps should be called "very diluted wastewater," said Wednesday he had been wrong to do so and apologized.

Nurse said Kriseman has a messaging problem.

"There is definitely a reluctance to confront the gravity of the situation," Nurse said. "What's that old song, Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News?"

Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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