As Hurricane Hermine churned through the Gulf of Mexico, it dumped over 22 inches of rain in the Tampa Bay area. The resulting flooding so overburdened the area's aging wastewater system, that the City of St. Petersburg released more than 151 million gallons of partly treated sewage into Tampa Bay. The discharges that followed Hurricane Hermine continued for ten days after the storm. Exact numbers for the sewage discharges are hard to come by, but these are current best estimates: St. Petersburg between 136-151 million gallons, Clearwater 31.7 million gallons, Largo 24.4 million gallons, Pinellas County 7.3 million gallons, and Tampa 1.7 million gallons.
So, what are the repercussions of a large, prolonged sewage spill? Water quality monitoring through the Florida Healthy Beaches Program indicated the presence of elevated levels of bacteria at several Hillsborough and Pinellas County beaches. The Florida Healthy Beaches Program samples for fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria, which are bacterial indicators of poor water quality. Exposure to contaminated water can lead to gastroenteritis, respiratory illness, rashes, eye and ear ailments, and more.
Beach-goers weren't the only ones impacted by the sewage dumping, initial findings indiacte that as many as 45 juvenile seabirds (black skimmers- a species of special concern) were killed after the releases. The exact cause of death has yet to be determined, but scientests suspect "salmonella, a virus or even Red Tide...Eaech of those potential causes...courld be dumping."
Perhaps most distrubing is the fact that this isn't the first major sewage dump into Tampa Bay in recent months. On September 16th, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection entered into a consent order with the City of St. Petersburg for violating environmental laws by repeatedly dumping waste into Tampa Bay. A consent order is a formal settlement which outlines specific actions and deadlines for the polluter to resolute their violations. In the agreement, the DEP found three specific occasions where St. Petersburg violated environmental laws: August 2-5, 2015 St. Petersburg dumped more than 31.5 million gallons of raw sewage into Clam Bayou, June 6-9, 2016 St. Petersburg released 230,000 gallons of untreated wastewater and 9.77 millions of partially treated wastewater, and the August 31-September 6, 2016 discharges related to Hurricane Hermine.
St. Petersburg officials are urging patience as the city continues to implement wastewater upgrades and works to expand capacity, but estimates for a fix are far off- 2018 or 2019 at the earliest. What can be done in the meantime? Here are some suggested ways to help protect our beaches from sewage.
1. Get involved! If you're local to the Tampa Bay area, join the Suncoast Chapter for a special meeting on water quality Thursday, September 22nd. Guest speakers include Claude Tankersley, Administrator for St. Petersburg's Public Works and Holly Parker, Florida Regional Manager for the Surfrider Foundation. More
2. Become part of the Blue Water Task Force! Over the next few months, the Suncoast Chapter is launching a Blue Water Task Force (BWTF). The BWTF is Surfrider Foundation's volunteer-run, water testing, education and advocacy program. The Chapter will use this program to alert citizens and officials in their communities to local water quality problems. More
3. Support water quality monitoring! In 2000, the Florida Legislature created the Florida Healthy Beaches Program to test coastal water quality throughout the state. In 2011, state funding was cut from the beaches program which now relies exclusively on federal funding through the BEACH Act. Due to a lack of state funds, the program has significantly reduced sampling frequency. The base line program sampling has decreased from weekly to bi-weekly and sampling is suspended between November and March for all counties north of Pinellas and Brevard. The program has also reduced the number of sampling locations monitored during the summer. More