TAMPA — After the cold snap around Christmas, water pipes started bursting around Tampa — 50 times in one week in Florida’s third-largest city.
As streets were closed to repair the breaks and residents were inconvenienced, officials said that the water coming from the city’s shallow reservoir on the Hillsborough River had cooled to under 50 degrees. All that cold water rushing into city water lines caused havoc, in no small part because many of those lines are so old, some dating back more than a century.
The city is entering the fifth year of a 20-year program to fix its aging pipes. The $2.9 billion program, dubbed PIPES (Progressive Infrastructure Planning to Ensure Stability), will also overhaul the city’s sewage and water plants and their distribution systems.
So far, 115 pipe projects are in construction, procurement, design or nearing completion at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion, according to city data.
With all that work underway, though, the city hasn’t seen a noticeable decrease in water line breaks, said Brad Baird, the city’s deputy administrator of infrastructure.
“We are not (seeing a decrease) yet,” Baird said, noting that the goal is to replace 20 miles of water lines and 30 miles of sewage pipe each year. But with 1,400 miles of sewage lines and 2,300 miles of water pipes, he said, it’s a big task.
“It’s going to take a while to really see the difference,” Baird said.
Streets closed for pipe repairs grab residents’ notice.
Last year, the city had 1,853 main and service line breaks, Baird said, causing the city to lose somewhere between 7% and 10% of its water. That adds up to about $20 million a year, although the city hasn’t calculated the value of the loss for last year, he said.
The city’s original plan was to take a holistic approach by repairing streets, stormwater drains and sidewalks at the same time they fix the pipes, but that idea hit twin snags over the past year.
The failure of the one-cent transportation tax at the polls in November along with a change in the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s shift in emphasis away from funding stormwater work has forced the city to largely scrap that plan.
But the change in course has a silver lining. The city is making repairs underground by pumping a resin-based lining into the pipes to seal the leaks, which doesn’t require street closures.
City infrastructure officials have also had to improvise as circumstances change. Supply chain issues and inflation have forced the city to defer some projects. Meanwhile, other unexpected glitches have occurred. One example is a leak in the Howard F. Curren wastewater facility’s oxygen plant, which plays a crucial role in treating sewage. It will cost $35 million, Baird said, forcing planners to move up its repairs and delay others.
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Unexpected twists will happen in any large infrastructure project. But the pipe work is not just another big repair job. It’s the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in the city’s history, Baird said, dwarfing the $251 million stormwater fix during former Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s tenure.
It was Buckhorn who gave utility administrators the green light to tackle the aging water and sewer system challenges. Mayor Jane Castor made it a priority in the first year of her administration in 2019 to push the work plan through the City Council. The cost will be paid for by hiking utility bills— the average bill will nearly double by the fall of 2026 to $75.21— and through bond issues. By the end of the project, bonds will make up roughly half of the financing, Baird said.
The city is taking advantage of its AAA bond rating for utilities, which makes borrowing money cheaper. The high bond rating is a point of pride, Baird said, adding that Tampa is the only utility in the bay area to have that rating and one of only 13 nationwide.
“That’s rarefied air,” he said. “We’re in really good shape financially.”
A concern back in 2019 was how residents would react to higher utility bills, but Baird said they haven’t received many complaints. And the city put an assistance program in place to help lower-income residents make the payments.
Council member Guido Maniscalco, who represents West Tampa and parts of South Tampa, said he hasn’t heard any complaints about higher utility bills.
Residents, he said, recognize the work needs to be done, especially when there are still a “ridiculous number” of water leaks.
“They know that they’re getting something for their money. It’s something tangible,” he said.
He does have to educate some residents frustrated by a lack of improvements in their neighborhood, explaining that the process will take another 16 years to complete.
“People get frustrated when a road is closed and they have to get detoured,” Maniscalco said. “But this is fixing the problem.”
Editor’s Note: Tampa has 1,400 miles of sewage lines and 2,300 miles of water pipes. The total miles of sewage and water pipes was incorrectly reported in the original version of this story.