Wastewater plants weathering Tropical Storm Debby — but don't flush too much

Published June 27, 2012

Tropical Storm Debby has made one of the Tampa Bay area's messy public services even messier.

Local governments in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have seen as much as three times the normal volume of sewage flowing through their wastewater treatment plants since the storm hit, causing significant strain and some minor blips.

But one Pasco County plant failed to fully accommodate the deluge. Partially treated wastewater from the Embassy Hills Wastewater Treatment Plant in New Port Richey overflowed into the surrounding drainage system late Monday. "It's the reclaimed water that is overflowing," said Bob Sigmond, fiscal and business service director for Pasco County Utilities. "It's not raw sewage." Reclaimed water is disinfected and treated with chlorine. It did not pose a health risk, Sigmond said, but it did add to the flooding and stormwater runoff, which can be contaminated.

In Pinellas County, flooding and rainfall prompted the cities of Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach to ask residents to "use the sewer system sparingly until the conditions improve." That means avoiding multiple loads of laundry and long showers, said Jim Murphy, Treasure Island's director of Public Works. He said the department received calls from residents. "They may see water standing in a tub or a shower drain, or when they go to flush the toilet, it won't go down," Murphy said.

The strain a tropical storm can put on local wastewater systems is demonstrated in Dunedin. The amount of water flowing into the plant peaked at 14.8 million gallons of water during the storm, he said. Average daily flow is 3.9 million gallons. However, the city's treatment plant is faring well, said Public Works director Doug Hutchens. "That's stormwater and floodwater that got into our sanitary sewer system," he said. "When you have that much more water going into the plant, that has to be treated, which means more chemicals and electricity."

Although sewage and stormwater are handled by separate systems, rainwater can get into sewage treatment systems through cracks in pipes or manholes. The result: overflows of untreated sewage into neighborhoods.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Pinellas County had seen about six sanitary sewer overflows in the 106 square miles it manages, said Bob Powell, director of the county's water and sewer division. He said the overflows were minor and fixed quickly. "Right now — keep our fingers crossed — things are looking pretty good," he said. Powell said the county's South Cross Bayou Water Reclamation Facility has been handling about 36 million gallons of wastewater per day, up from its 21 million-gallon average.

St. Petersburg's four wastewater treatment facilities have largely kept up with Debby, said Mike Connors, the city's Public Works administrator.

Tampa's treatment plant is working triple-time, treating as many as 170 million gallons a day compared with an average daily flow of 57 million gallons a day. However, the plant is handling the deluge well — it can process up to 220 million gallons a day, said wastewater director Anthony Kasper.

Times staff writers Justin George, Keyonna Summers, and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.