1. Opinion

Editorial: A smelly wakeup call on sewers

Tampa Bay is not some Third World country that has neither the political will nor the financial resources to keep sewage from floating into our bays and our streets. The 230 million gallons (and counting) of sewage or "partially treated wastewater'' dumped into the bay and elsewhere in the wake of a glancing blow from a minor hurricane cannot be repeated. This is a stunning, smelly wakeup call that the region's sewer and stormwater systems need significant work that has to take priority over more glamorous projects.

It's easy to find fault for the spilled sewage, some of it raw and most of it partially treated. Overdevelopment. Aging sewer and stormwater systems. Neglect by local governments. Climate change. But the bottom line is clear: Massive sewage dumps threaten public health, private property, tourism and Tampa Bay itself — the region's signature. Taxpayers have spent countless millions of dollars in recent decades to make the bay healthier and cleaner than it has been for generations, and we cannot go backward.

The city of St. Petersburg has the dubious distinction of dumping the most partially treated sewage or wastewater after Hermine — a stunning 135 million gallons or more into Tampa Bay and Boca Ciega Bay, plus more that poured out of manholes in amounts that will never be known. It also has been the least transparent about it. But St. Petersburg isn't alone. Other cities and counties have continued raising their own estimates since the storm. Pasco County: 36.8 million gallons. Clearwater: 31.7 million. Largo: 24.4 million. Pinellas County 7.3 million. Tampa: 1.7 million. That's clear evidence of a regionwide problem that has to rise to the top of any priority list.

First, local government officials have to accept responsibility and respond with a sense of urgency, openness and commitment to invest in real solutions. Pinellas is creating a countywide task force proposed by County Commission Chairman Charlie Justice to at least improve coordination among the county's 14 public sewer systems and three private providers. Perhaps that will lead to a broader discussion about some type of consolidation of systems, but this is a smart first step that can help ensure the fixes don't happen piecemeal.

Second, state government will have to step up. Inadequate sewage and stormwater systems and massive dumps affect public health, the environment and the overall economy, three areas the state government has a responsibility to protect. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has called for the Pinellas legislative delegation to discuss the situation Tuesday, and Tampa Bay lawmakers should head into next year's session with a broad array of proposals. With the incoming House speaker, Richard Corcoran, coming from Pasco County, and other local lawmakers such as Latvala holding powerful positions, Tampa Bay's sewage and stormwater problems should get real attention. State taxpayers have made a significant investment in cleaning up Tampa Bay, beach restoration and tourism advertising — and those investments should be protected from further harm.

Third, voters have a responsibility to keep the pressure on their elected officials to address the problem and be prepared to help pay for the solution. It won't come cheap. In Pinellas, where an extension of the Penny for Pinellas sales tax will be up for voter approval again next year, these infrastructure improvements should figure prominently on the list of promised projects.

There are some positive signs. St. Petersburg is set to spend $58 million next year and $100 million over three years fixing pipes and adding capacity at its processing facilities. Tampa approved a $251 million stormwater plan earlier this month, aimed at relieving heavy flooding in five major areas, especially low-lying South Tampa. The city of Largo is in the midst of construction projects to add capacity to its sewer system. But none of these efforts alone are enough to rectify such a widespread problem, one that won't go away soon.

Sewage has poured into waterways from Brooksville to St. Petersburg, but Tampa Bay itself has taken the brunt. The bay belongs to the entire region and is remarkably healthy, with sea grass growth returning to 1950s levels. This progress must not be reversed. Political candidates throughout Tampa Bay say voters are talking about sewage and flooding on the campaign trail, and twice last week St. Petersburg residents interrupted meetings about the new pier to demand action on sewers. Good. Imagine what a more direct hit from even a low category hurricane would bring.

Tampa Bay is better than this. It's time for elected leaders throughout the region to step up — and for taxpayers to make clear they won't accept massive sewage dumps into the bays and streets.