TAMPA — One afternoon in June, a river of water rushed down Rome Avenue.
The cascade from a burst 24-inch transmission pipe flooded people out of their homes and shut down the street for a week in the Riverbend neighborhood just north of Hillsborough Avenue. It ended up costing the city about $200,000 to fix.
The Rome Avenue break drew plenty of TV news vans, but it was just one of more than a dozen active water main breaks on an average day in Tampa. For the last several years, those breaks — gushers like on Rome Avenue and hundreds of slower trickles that barely attract the notice of residents — have been a fact of life in Florida’s third-largest city.
"Today, we got below 20. We're at 19 active breaks," city Water Director Chuck Weber said on May 7. For much of the winter, when colder temperatures create ideal conditions for busting aging pipes, the city averaged 50 active breaks per day.
And the problem is only getting worse. In 2018, the city had 1,201 breaks, more than double the number in 2016.
Each year, the city loses between 7 percent to 10 percent of its water to broken water mains — about 2 to 2.75 billion gallons per year. City officials estimate those leaks cost the city about $10 million annually.
The problem is simple: the city's pipes are old. Some date back to the early 1900s. A much bigger chunk installed in the 1950s and 60s are at the end of their life. Overall, about 500 miles of pipe needs to be replaced in the next 20 years out of the city's network of 2,160 miles.
To put that in context, if you stretched the city's pipes in a straight line on roads, they would run nearly to Salt Lake City. The city needs to replace an amount stretching almost to Birmingham, Ala.
That won't be cheap. In January, the city staff estimated the bill at about $672 million over 20 years. Then add in the necessary upgrades to the city's nearly century-old David L. Tippen Water Treatment Facility and the cost of creating a system to convert highly-treated wastewater into drinking water to slake the thirst of a growing city. That pushes the tab to about $1.5 billion.
The bill will be paid by Tampa water ratepayers starting in October if current plans to implement the first of eight consecutive years of rate hikes holds. The City Council, briefed by water and budget officials in late January, will hear updated plans in June. The rates will likely be approved beginning with the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.
A preliminary plan called for ratcheting up water rates to roughly $39 a month by 2026, based on a presentation provided to City Council earlier this year by budget staff. But Mayor Jane Castor is still working out the details.
And even if the water rate hikes are approved, the leaks won't subside right away. Replacing all those rusting cast-iron pipes will take a number of years.
"We won't be able to replace this pipe fast enough to not see an impact from not having started sooner," Weber said.
Replacing stormwater and sewer pipes — not to mention repaving roads — needs to be done in concert to avoid having streets ripped up repeatedly. Castor made that point often during her campaign.
How will residents react to the news that they might see their utility bills climb to nearly $80 by 2026? Weber said Tampa residents current combined water and sewer bills of less than $42 is a fraction of what neighboring cities charge. St.Petersburg and Clearwater's utility bills are both currently higher.
Water rates haven't been increased in Tampa since October 2011.
"We do need to start paying attention because we're about to get hit with an avalanche of pipe that's not going to make it — that's reached the end of its life," Weber said. "Looking forward, we definitely need to take care of this problem."
During the recession, water took a back seat to more pressing problems in a city government forced to cut jobs and services.
Part of the proposal for the coming budget would be to establish a base water rate. Tampa’s is the only major utility not to have a minimum monthly charge.
During a severe drought a few years ago, the city asked residents to hand-water their lawns and gardens. The resulting drop in water use cost the city $25 million in revenue, Weber said.
"That hurt. That hurt a lot," he said, saying there needs to be better balance between revenue generated by usage and money for capital repairs and improvements.
In January, Chief Financial Officer Sonya Little briefed council members on a proposed $4 monthly base fee to be applied with the start of the new fiscal year in October. Council members are scheduled to receive another briefing in June.
The monthly base rate would increase by $2 a year until it reaches $32 a month by 2034, according to preliminary proposals.
Little presented three funding scenarios. One version solving the city's capital needs would raise water rates by 3 percent next year and 2021, before hiking it to annual 15 percent increases between 2022 and 2027. After that, rates would rise 1 percent a year through 2040.
Castor was briefed by Weber and water officials on Friday and supports the proposed increase, said her spokeswoman Ashley Bauman.
Last week, in a National Public Radio interview, Castor repeated a common refrain from the campaign trail: that paying for infrastructure is a necessary, but often thankless, part of governing.
She paraphrased a line by former Mayor Pam Iorio, saying you don't see ribbon cuttings for new sewer lines.
City Council member Charlie Miranda, an expert in water issues, said with 100-year-old water lines still operating in the city, a major replacement is long overdue. But it's not always an easy sell to residents who see a jump in water bills.
"It's very hard to for people to understand when you don't see anything. You can't see a water line underground," Miranda said. "The story has to be told and up to now, we haven't done a good job of doing it."