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National Climate Group Warns More Florida Storm-Related Sewage Overflows To Come

Environmental Protection Agency
The Environmental Protection Agency's diagram of how combined sewer systems work.

St. Petersburg is facing scrutiny over its recent decision to pump 20 million gallons of sewage from an overloaded treatment plant into Tampa Bay.

One national environmental organization is warning: similar overflows could become more common as the climate changes.

The discharge happened after Hurricane Hermine dumped rain on St. Petersburg early this month, and the city’s sewage system wasn't able to handle the extra water, as theTampa Bay Times reported.

Senior scientist Alyson Kenward, with D.C.-based think tank Climate Central, said heavy rain is becoming more common as the Earth warms and many areas aren’t equipped to deal with it.

“In a lot of the country we’ve got an antiquated sewage infrastructure system — a combined sewer system where sewage and stormwater flow from the same pipes and it’s really not up to the task for the kinds of downpours we’re seeing right now,” she said.

St. Petersburg’s system separates stormwater from sewage, but it’s strained after the city recently shut down a major treatment plant. At the time, officials were confident remaining plants could handle the load.

Jacksonville’s system separates waste from stormwater, too. JEA has invested more than $2 billion to modernize infrastructure, including a new backup sewer line beneath the St. Johns River in case the main line fails. Utility spokeswoman Gerri Boyce said JEA is ready for increased strain due to First Coast population growth.

“We have very systematic planning in place to handle the sewage as our community grows. In fact, we’re currently in the middle of an upgrade out in St. Johns County,” Boyce said.

A recent Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services andUniversity of Florida study predicts 15 million more people could be living in the Sunshine State by 2070. Northeast Florida’s growth is projected to besecond only to Central Florida.

But Kenward, with Climate Central, said her recentsewage study suggests even the most modern system is vulnerable to extreme weather overflows.

Kenward mined news articles about rain-related sewer overflows around the country for a year and a half to inform her research because she said reporting overflows is generally voluntary for utilities.

“So during very heavy downpours or coastal flooding, cities like Jacksonville are still going to see some impacts from sewage overflows going forward,” she said.

She said there’s no easy answer, but governments could help prevent human waste from polluting fresh water by doing more to prevent flooding.

According to Climate Central’s 2015 States At Risk report card,Florida is failing on that front. The Climate think tank gave Florida D-minus for its inland flooding plan and and for its coastal flooding prevention.

The report card assessed each state’s risk using the best available climate data, compared that to what plans each state had in place and how well they were implementing them. Climate Central then analyzed the data and graded each state on a curve.

However, the analysis doesn’t assess the effectiveness of each policy. Instead it merely grades a state based on whether or not they have a plan at all and Kenward said the group isn’t offering any specific solutions.

Reporter Ryan Benk can be reached at, at (904) 358 6319 or on Twitter @RyanMichaelBenk

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.