1. Opinion

Column: St. Petersburg must prepare for climate impacts

Published Oct. 13, 2015

St. Petersburg and cities across Tampa Bay experienced heavy and persistent rain beginning in late July and ending in mid August. We far exceeded our average rainfall during this time, with July ranking as the eighth-wettest July in our city's history. This extreme weather prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency for counties throughout our region, including Pinellas.

In early August at a plant adjacent to Eckerd College, the rain led to an overflow of wastewater that was one treatment step from becoming reclaimed water. Days later, 15 million gallons of sewage was pumped into a stormwater treatment pond at Clam Bayou. The alternative to this controlled discharge would have been what occurred in neighboring cities: raw sewage in our streets, lawns and homes. In St. Petersburg, this was an unacceptable option.

Finally, 1.1 million gallons of partially treated wastewater was discharged into Tampa Bay through an emergency outfall about a quarter-mile offshore. A citizen-initiated investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found no violations and is now closed. Their report states that though our communications could be improved, public notification of this incident was not warranted based on a sample of the contaminant.

Regardless, my administration is taking steps to better inform our residents about incidents like this by improving the communications coming out of our Public Works Administration and Water Resources Department. Specifically, we have transferred an information specialist from Marketing to Water Resources, and we're also creating a communications plan specifically for Public Works and Water Resources.

Naturally, this event has led to increased scrutiny on our wastewater system and our future wastewater plans. I share several of the concerns that have been raised. The good news is improvements have begun. In May, construction began on a 15-million-gallon reject water storage tank at the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility. Two reclaimed water pumps with 15 million gallons per day capacity are also under construction. A new pump station that can transfer 5 million gallons of wastewater per day is under design, with construction beginning this fiscal year. More than $20 million of improvements to our wastewater assets are already budgeted through 2020.

Incredibly, our desire to improve capacity is not universally shared. I enjoy leading a civically engaged community and do not shirk responsibility to weigh competing interests, but I will also not allow critical public projects to be sidelined because of parochialism or politics.

Nor will I allow us to ignore the larger and no less urgent issue of climate change.

Extreme weather is affecting cities across America with increased frequency and ferocity, the historic rain and flooding throughout South Carolina serving as the latest example. St. Petersburg is not immune to the threat of rising water. The Times' Richard Danielson recently reported on a study by Karen Clark & Co., a Boston firm that specializes in modeling the likely property damage from natural disasters. Their nationwide analysis shows that our area is most vulnerable to flooding from a once-in-a-century hurricane.

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With this knowledge, I am recommending to our City Council a list of investments designed to accelerate our impact in the areas of resiliency and sustainability.

The funding source will be our recent settlement amount from the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. The net proceeds of this settlement provide the city with approximately $6.5 million. In keeping with our commitment to fiscal stewardship and responsibility, I believe these one-time funds should be used for one-time expenses only.

Disruptive occurrences such as natural disasters, environmental upsets and other shocks and stressors that challenge our city's infrastructure are an inevitable reality. How well St. Petersburg mitigates, responds and recovers from such disruptions is a reflection of our work as its stewards.

I am excited about the opportunity to use these funds, borne of an unexpected disruption, to guide our city onto a platform of resiliency, sustainability and livability. As such, leading my recommendation is a comprehensive, professional resiliency plan, as well as a climate action plan. In addition, I am recommending $1 million to expedite and address wastewater infrastructure replacement and repairs near environmentally sensitive natural resources. I am recommending funding for energy retrofits for city facilities and a bike share program to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and encourage active transportation.

Funding for a St. Petersburg-to-Tampa ferry pilot program, additional land for a new, sustainably built Shore Acres recreation center, and the purchase of approximately 250 trees to provide shade, water quality treatment, and reduce urban heat island effects are also included in my recommendation.

Despite this summer's rainy days, St. Petersburg is still the Sunshine City. As long as we boldly confront our biggest challenge, that won't ever change.

Rick Kriseman is mayor of St. Petersburg.


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