St. Petersburg officials know they have a long-term challenge on their hands to fix the city's aging, leaky sewer system. Two successive summers of sewage dumps following heavy rains have made that clear. The city has a set out on a comprehensive, long-term plan to make upgrades and repairs and increase capacity. In the meantime, it must not neglect to make smaller, more immediate fixes that, added up, can help the system function better and restore residents' confidence.
After St. Petersburg received as much as 14 inches of rain over two days in June, city officials were forced to discharge nearly 10 million gallons of partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay to cope with the overflow. The situation was worse last summer, when weeks of sustained rains led to spills and discharges of more than 30 million gallons of wastewater into local waterways.
In the time between the spills, a consultant recommended top-to-bottom fixes to the sewer system. The biggest is a $35 million expansion of the southwest treatment plant that will add an additional 30 million gallons of capacity. Officials have also set to work re-lining leaky pipes that allow stormwater to infiltrate the system, leading to overflows. That's the kind of work that should continue, with dispatch, because the plant expansion is years away.
The City Council voted recently to spend $400,000 to add 3 million gallons of storage capacity at a shuttered treatment plant near Albert Whitted Airport. That's in addition to a new, 15 million-gallon tank at the southwest plant. That tank wasn't available during June's emergency, though, because the contractor plugged the pipes and no one from the city noticed. That's a failure of basic preparedness and should not be repeated.
St. Petersburg is on its way to resolving the chronic troubles of its 90-year-old sewer system. But if the overflows are ever to be stemmed, long-term upgrades must not be mutually exclusive from immediate fixes.