Publisher’s Note: This is the second article in our series about Pinellas County as it relates to development, sewer and water infrastructure and renewable energy.
Three days after WTSP reported the city of St. Petersburg was working to prevent sewage issues during Hurricane Irma, the city announced a spill of more than 400,000 gallons of partially treated sewage on the property of the Northeast Water Reclamation Facility in Southwest St. Pete.
The spill was the result of a faulty tank float sensor, not the post-Irma intermittent power interruptions the plant had experienced or a capacity issue; but a spill is a spill, and it illustrates the ongoing challenges facing municipalities and Pinellas County when it comes to managing the area’s aging water and sewer infrastructure serving an ever-growing county population.
Before the latest spill Randi Kim, the county’s utilities director acknowledged the challenges the area faces during an update on water and sewer infrastructure at a community advocacy meeting hosted by the City of S. Pasadena and the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.
“Water and sewer has been in the news in our community the last few years and there are a lot of concerns about whether or not our aging infra-structure can continue to meet the development challenges,” said Kim. “We continue to have an influx of new people in our community and they all drink water and take showers and water their lawns, so the question is can our existing infrastructure meet those increasing water needs?”
The county provides about 1 million customers with water and sewage via 3,600-plus miles of pipes, and treats 155 million gallons of wastewater per day at 14 wastewater treatment plants. They also work with area municipalities like Clearwater, St. Pete and Tarpon Springs along with beach communities who are responsible for their own utilities.
Area water comes from Tampa Bay Water (TBW), a nonprofit, state special district which manages a combination of supplies from well fields, surface water and desalinization plants. “We take it from the county line at the top end and deliver throughout the county to customers as far south as Fort De Soto.”
Kim says their treatment facilities are able and designed to treat twice the average flow or about 310 million gallons a day. It is huge rain events where groundwater seeps into aging, cracked pipes in the sewer system that can increase capacity beyond what the county and municipalities can handle.
Fixing the problem is a juggling act between increased capacity and minimizing infiltration.“Do you build bigger and bigger wastewater treatment plants or do you address the problem of leaky sewers?” asks Kim. “We are doing a combination of both, realizing if we build this huge infra- structure and reduce infiltration, we will build up more than we need, so we’re tackling the capacity issue, but also expediting the infiltration problem.”
They work with TBW every five years to review the master plan and project needs for the next 20 years. The county also formed the Wastewater/ Stormwater Task Force in 2016 in partnership with the University Partnership Center of St. Petersburg College, – Digitorium, Pinellas County municipalities, and other agencies to identify wastewater and stormwater solutions for the county.
And there is good news; the demand for water in Pinellas County has actually gone down from an average of 153 gallons per person, per day in 1989/90 to 69 in 2015/16. Less water, less wastewater.
“That’s really a testament to the regional water system.” She also credits the use of reclaimed water, water efficient appliances, low flow toilets and shower-heads and education.
The latter is an on-going effort because some of the issues are with pipes on private property. “We are trying to reach out to our customers, our resi- dents and our commercial businesses to teach them how to maintain those pipes. Also, just not flush