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Tampa addresses chronic flooding as climate challenges loom

As $251 million in stormwater improvements proceed, city engineers grapple with rising seas.

TAMPA — As a crane noisily lowered an enormous pipe into a 12-foot hole along West Gray Street recently, Mobility Director Vik Bhide said this work would provide relief to a huge area of West Tampa, reducing the flooded streets and standing pools of water that have plagued the largest city bordering Tampa Bay since its founding.

Yet as dramatic as the pipe project looks, it’s only the beginning of what Tampa needs to protect itself from changing climate. Rising seas could eventually erase the massive $251 million program in stormwater improvements approved by the City Council in 2016 unless more is done.

Property owners have already paid five years of fees from that 2016 assessment that will soon reach nearly $90 a year for the owner of an average-sized home. Over the next 25 years, those fees will help pay for the large-scale overhaul. And, Bhide said, the city hopes to piggyback on the extensive water and sewer repairs being done all over the city as part of its $2.9 billion infrastructure repair plan, which was approved last year.

Larger pipes, raised roads and more pumping stations will help, but only so much, he said.

“Even that will reach a limit,” Bhide said. “We’re going to have to do something different.”

A study completed earlier this year concluded that higher seawalls and beefed-up shorelines bolstered by native plants like mangroves would help. Eventually, so will limiting development in high-risk coastal areas, Bhide said.

The West Gray construction is part of the Cypress Street Outfall project, which seeks to improve drainage and stormwater flow for 700 acres. It’ll drain into the Hillsborough River through a huge outfall near the University of Tampa. When it’s completed by mid-2021, the area will see much less flooding, engineering models show.

The city and contractors will install 7,300 linear feet of pipes, concrete tunnels and other stormwater improvements. The city seeks to take advantage of the ripped up streets by replacing water lines, installing a new 36-inch water main and enhancing sidewalks.

While necessary, the disruption has inconvenienced residents and businesses in this rapidly changing neighborhood where large single-family homes and new apartment buildings have sprung up beside modest, aging ranches.

Bhide said the city has tried to accommodate business needs by, in some cases, improving access and removing utility poles as the work progressed.

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 ]

It’s all part of Tampa’s balancing act: reducing flooding for current residents while trying to get ahead of projections that show sea level rising by as much as 8.5 feet by 2100.

Five major stormwater projects are underway from the Nebraska Avenue corridor north of Interstate 275 down to the border of MacDill Air Force Base. All are due to be completed within the next few years.

Already, long-suffering neighborhoods, once made impassable even in a heavy summer downpour, see the difference. In South Tampa’s Virginia Park neighborhood, the stormwater work done along South Manhattan Avenue has greatly reduced flooding, said Tom Connelly, the neighborhood association president.

Still, problems remain. Drainage ditches fill up faster than they did a few years ago and the streets often flood because of inadequate drainage.

“I feel like putting out a No Wake sign at times,” Connelly said.

Mayor Jane Castor’s administration has made an effort recently to reach out to residents, he said.

“I like the new hires and attitude, but it’s not going to be a quick fix,” he said.

In Davis Islands, residents have long endured high waters after storms. But recent drainage improvements have improved things, said Antonio Amadeo, the neighborhood association’s vice president.

“There have been fewer complaints on flooding that we’ve seen historically,” Amadeo said. “Whatever they’re doing incrementally has worked.”

One thing Amadeo has noticed is the regular maintenance on the outfalls, the large openings where stormwater drains into the bay.

They’ve worked really diligently on those outfalls, cleaning out the barnacles, so that after the rain events they drain properly,” Amadeo said.

But, in a neighborhood built out of the bay on dredge fill, the big stormwater fix is elusive.

“We have tidal issues. There’s only so much you can do,” he said.

The risk that climate change brings to outfalls are of the things that worries, Ben Allushuski, a city engineer who participated in this year’s stormwater climate change study.

Rising water means outfalls could, during high tides and storms, become conduits to more flooding, instead of conveying water off city streets into the river or bay.

Related: How Tampa is trying to keep its stormwater system working amid rising seas

Part of the stormwater improvement assessment approved four years ago includes more money for regular maintenance on the outfalls, including removing troublesome barnacles. The various projects also include filters to keep trash and other debris from clogging up the pipes, Allushuski said.

Council member Bill Carlson, who represents South Tampa, said he frequently hears from residents when it rains and floods.

And the long timeline for the complicated, expensive projects can be frustrating. Some large completed projects like West Neptune Street have been welcome, but others like work along Interbay Boulevard, have hardly begun.

Smaller “micro” fixes on individual streets, using pumps or clearing drainage ditches have boosted morale. Carlson praised Castor’s team for acting to make quick improvements when possible.

“But people understand the big fix is coming,” he said. “So that gives them hope.”

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