Tampa studies how to make its stormwater system handle rising seas

A pilot study showing potential flooding caused by sea level rise is underway.
Traffic moves through some street flooding near Edison Ave and Bayshore Blvd. as severe storms reach the area in April 2019.
Traffic moves through some street flooding near Edison Ave and Bayshore Blvd. as severe storms reach the area in April 2019. [ Times (2019) ]
Published March 16, 2020|Updated March 16, 2020

TAMPA — Tampa has been plagued by flooding for decades, a problem made worse by its inadequate system of pipes, valves and vaults that take rainwater off city streets and into the Hillsborough River and the bays.

Enter climate change. Rising seas threaten to turn a chronic nuisance into a nightmare for many areas of the city. Think Davis Islands, South Tampa, and large swaths of riverfront-adjacent neighborhoods like Wellswood and Rivercrest.

A worst-case scenario? Conjure up a stormy day and throw in an additional 1 1/2 feet of water. For bonus scare-points, add a King Tide into the city’s stormwater system.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The city has three decades to find a fix.

And that’s not the only bright spot, said city officials and consultants from Applied Sciences, a Tampa firm that — with the help of a $7,500 state grant — is completing a study which should be finalized in April.

“The good news is that we’re talking about it, it’s ahead, we have some time to plan for it. And it looks like between the state and the federal government and the city, that the resources are being allocated to include these impacts and our future projects,” said Elie G. Araj, the president of Applied Sciences.

The city has already made a big investment in tackling its flooding problems.

In 2016, the City Council approved an assessment that will eventually cost the owner of a medium-size house just under $90 a year. The $251 million plan is on the books for 30 years. The previous year, council members had rejected a similar plan by a 4-3 vote.

But the consensus is that won’t be enough. The study is examining six high-risk areas around the city to see what the effects of rising seas will be on the surrounding neighborhoods. Downtown, several spots on both sides of the South Tampa peninsula, Wellswood and Davis Islands were picked as good representative spots, although they’re far from the only at-risk areas.

The points at which stormwater empties from pipes into the river or bay are called “outfalls." Tampa has about 560 of them, said Matthew Goolsby, an Applied Sciences senior water resources engineer.

The problem is rising seas are putting many of them at risk of being underwater, which would allow water to flow back up into the stormwater system and make flooding far worse.

It’s not an easy problem to solve and a range of options are on the table, including pumping, underground storage vaults and elevating the outfalls above the anticipated high water marks.

But researchers want figure out what the future looks like. That’s where the study comes in.

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If you think this sounds really expensive, you’re probably right. Creating a resilient city from scratch isn’t easy. But the silver lining is that it will save money for residents down the road. Studies indicate every $1 spent on capital infrastructure improvements like stormwater will save residents about $4 in decades ahead.

“It’s easy to kind of get lost in the budgets and the dollars and things like that, but the benefits are going to be coming back ... with flood insurance, you know, premiums and things like that‚” said Nick Charnas III, vice president of Applied Sciences.

Cost benefit analysis aside, the city has decided to act.

" I think we have got to take the first step of trying to identify it rather than sitting back, and saying, ‘well, we’ll worry about it later.’ Let’s take it head on and take a look at what is the impact of the stormwater system. And what can we do to actually start moving forward?" said Randy Goers, the city’s urban planning coordinator.

A meeting to present the study publicly this week has been postponed.

Newsart graphic:
Newsart graphic: [ STEVE MADDEN | Times graphic ]