Baker: Water, sewers are basic, constant city concerns

The Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility was decomissioned before a new system was ready.
The Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility was decomissioned before a new system was ready.
Published Sept. 27, 2016

Since the city's sewer department released millions of gallons into nearby waters in August 2015, there has been a repeated assertion from St. Petersburg City Hall that we have a crumbling sewer system that has been neglected and ignored by past leaders for decades and "the bill is now coming due."

That is simply untrue.

During the first decade of this century, the city invested enormous amounts into its sewer infrastructure, upgrading the system and reducing overflows to minimal amounts. The purpose of the effort was to prevent the very situation we are now in, an overflow crisis following a significant rain event. Sadly, a major part of that overflow could have been avoided.

I served as St. Petersburg's mayor from April 1, 2001, through Jan. 2, 2010. In 2000, the city had entered into a consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to repair St. Petersburg's sewer system. The DEP action resulted from a late 1990s sewer department spill of millions of gallons into the bay.

The city created a plan to make repairs to reduce the likelihood of future overflows. We adopted budgets to repair the system, and we instituted significant water/sewer bill rate increases to fund bond payments for the amounts borrowed to pay for the repairs. As you would expect, the rate increases were not popular. We also added performance measures to the online City Scorecard that monitored our pipe repair program and sewer overflows.

The City Council and I, during our nine budgets from 2002-2010, committed about $170 million to sewer department capital expenditures to upgrade the system (plant repairs, lift stations, pipe lining and replacement, reclaimed distribution system, etc.). This was in addition to about $70 million in budgeted capital expenditures for upgrades to the drinking water plant and distribution system and about $35 million in budgeted capital expenditures for our stormwater (drainage) system.

These are extremely substantial expenditures that were undertaken with great sacrifice by our rate-paying residents. The large scale of the work required disruptions as sewer pipes around the city were repaired, lined or replaced. But the work was necessary to ensure the integrity of our system.

In May 2010, four months after I left office, the results of St. Petersburg's investment and work of our water department employees were heralded in the national publication Municipal Sewer and Water. Some excerpts:

"When it rains in St. Petersburg, it pours. But the sewer system no longer overflows the way it used to, and manhole geysers are a thing of the past. …"

"The city has progressed from overflows totaling millions of gallons a year in the late 1990s to less than 5,000 gallons a year today (2010) in overflows, spills and other discharges reaching the surface. …"

"Such significant strides caught the attention of the Florida Water Environment Association, which honored the St. Petersburg collections system maintenance program in 2007, naming it the best in the state for systems with more than 50,000 customers.''

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The results were achieved even though we had many significant rain events and rain years. Two hurricanes (Jeanne and Francis in 2004) impacted the city with power outages, rain and flooding, in addition to many other significant storms and rainy seasons. This is not to diminish the severity of the rain events during the past 15 months. It is important, though, to provide context.

Although substantial progress was made upgrading our sewer system during this period, more work needs to be done, and will always need to be done to improve and maintain the system to the levels that St. Petersburg's residents and our neighbors deserve. This must be a constant priority.

The focus of recent discussion is on the city's administrative decision in April 2015 to close the Albert Whitted sewage treatment plant and transfer its sewage to the Southwest Plant before the necessary improvements to the Southwest Plant were complete, improvements that would have allowed the plant to handle the additional flow. Within four months after that closing, the city released over 30 million gallons into Clam Bayou and Tampa Bay. The premature closing of this plant, and loss of its treatment capacity, was devastating to the system's ability to process sewage. It was self-inflicted damage that never should have happened.

Clearly, it is critical to immediately develop and execute a plan to continue upgrading our sewer system and fix the mess caused by the early shutdown of the Albert Whitted Plant. But we can only create a successful path forward if we are honest about how we got here.

Rick Baker was mayor of St. Petersburg from April 2001 to January 2010.