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Tampa, St. Pete didn’t flood or spill sewage in Elsa like they used to during storms. Why?

Tampa Bay’s largest cities have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into hardening their sewer and stormwater systems. It appears to be paying off.
Jason Viola, with Woodruff and Sons, helps guide the delivery of a section of box culvert to be used in a new stormwater drainage system on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, below Gray Street at the Havana Square apartment complex in Tampa. The site is part of a massive, multi-block construction zone in North Hyde Park, the result of a $251-million stormwater assessment approved by the Tampa City Council to tackle perennially flooded streets, particularly in South Tampa.
Jason Viola, with Woodruff and Sons, helps guide the delivery of a section of box culvert to be used in a new stormwater drainage system on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, below Gray Street at the Havana Square apartment complex in Tampa. The site is part of a massive, multi-block construction zone in North Hyde Park, the result of a $251-million stormwater assessment approved by the Tampa City Council to tackle perennially flooded streets, particularly in South Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 11

TAMPA — Remember the summers of 2015 and 2016? They were wet — and nasty — in Tampa Bay.

Three weeks of daily rain in 2015 and Tropical Storm Colin and Hurricane Hermine the following year ended up with Tampa and Boca Ciega bays, the Hillsborough River and city streets on both sides of the bay being polluted with sewage and floodwaters.

Five years later, weeks of heavy rain and Tropical Storm Elsa dumped prolonged gushing rain over the bay area, but the results were quite different.

Neither Tampa or St. Petersburg had any sewage incidents during Elsa. Nor did either flood-prone city have major issues with streets being closed down because of high water.

“We had no overflows with Elsa. Zero. In large part due to improvements we’ve made since 2016,” said Brad Baird, Tampa’s deputy administrator for infrastructure.

Five years ago, Tampa had problems with pump stations losing power and causing overflows. The city also had problems with outdated pump stations and aging pipes.

But after the 2016 spills, former mayor Bob Buckhorn ordered his staff to find a way to quickly fix the problem. A $5 million diversion project involving two miles of pressurized pipe and a revamped pump station on Perry Avenue in Riverside Heights has eliminated what used to be the city’s biggest sewage leaking liability, Baird said.

“It’s fixed the problem. We’ve had no issues,” Baird said, offering by way of example a heavy rain on July 3 that resulted in nearly 1 million gallons of sewage being diverted.

A small spill of about 58,000 gallons did occur in other parts of the city, Baird said.

Tampa has also bought dozens of portable generators and pumps to deploy at pump stations that lose power or become overwhelmed by high flows. And it’s rebuilt key pump stations and other infrastructure.

Perhaps key was the removal of thousands of tons of trash, including tons of illegally dumped concrete, that were clogging up the city’s main gravity lines, called “interceptors,” which are often big enough for an adult to stand inside.

The interceptors were, on average, about one-third blocked and hadn’t been cleaned since 1980, Baird said.

All of those fixes cost somewhere in the range of $27 million. Started under Buckhorn, they will be accelerated under Mayor Jane Castor’s $2.9 billion, 20-year infrastructure plan approved by City Council in 2019, he said. Including pipe lining and other costs not directly associated with reducing overflows, the price tag climbs to around $200 million.

Across the bay, St. Petersburg, which pumped, dumped and spilled nearly 1 billion gallons of sewage before entering into a $350 million consent order with the state in 2017 — with millions more pumped down injection wells into the aquifer in 2018 and 2019 — also avoided spills or having to inject polluted sewage into the aquifer via its injection wells, according to the office of Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Elsa didn’t cause any sewage overflows or illegal injections down the wells, said Kriseman’s spokesperson Ben Kirby.

Neither the mayor nor the city’s public works administrator responded to three requests for comment.

Flooding wasn’t a huge issue in either city during Elsa, also a marked change from recent years.

In Tampa, that was a welcome victory for a place once famous for flooded streets after an afternoon thunderstorm.

For Vik Bhide, the city’s mobility director, it shows, he said, that if residents are willing to pay more in taxes (in this case assessments levied twice in the past decade), they will see benefits — and Tampa has so far in 2021.

“In West Tampa, particularly, it has made a big difference,” Bhide said.

But South Tampa’s low elevation and proximity to water makes it a hard riddle to solve in the medium and long-term due to climate change, Bhide said.

Ultimately, if sea level rises to the level of the huge outfall pipes that funnel stormwater into the bay, there isn’t much that the city can do.

“We may have a structurally sound system within the city, but if the sea level rises to the level of the outfalls, there will be nowhere for the water to go,” Bhide said.

But, at least for now, the success of Tampa and St. Petersburg in keeping their streets, waterways and residents’ yards free of pollution and floodwaters is cause for kudos.

“It’s nothing short of amazing what Wastewater has accomplished in very short order,” Baird said.