Aging infrastructure and storms contribute to massive spills
More than 900,000 gallons of raw sewage flowed into Sarasota Bay after a violent December storm forced open a city pipe.
Summer rain in Daytona Beach and equipment failure in Jacksonville each prompted more than a quarter-million gallons of human waste to spill from sewers last year.
In Boca Raton, a pressurized pipe gushed out nearly 50,000 gallons of untreated wastewater, while another 55,000 gallons spewed from a DeFuniak Springs manhole into nearby Bruce Creek.
These sewage spills are emblematic of failing wastewater systems across Florida, which is grappling with aging infrastructure and no clear solutions for funding a fix.
During the past decade, deteriorating sewers have released 1.6 billion gallons of wastewater, much of it polluting the state’s estuaries and oceans, according to a GateHouse Media analysis of state environmental data.
More than 370 million gallons of that was completely untreated.
Experts say the sewage has fed the blue-green algae blooms wreaking havoc on Florida estuaries and exacerbated red tide in the Gulf of Mexico. Amid historic growth, environmentalists fear it will only get worse.
“We are at a point where sewers need to be replaced and have been for some time now,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of Manasota-88, an environmental advocacy organization in Southwest Florida. “Until the local governments make it a priority, we are going to continue seeing these spills. Something needs to be done.”
GateHouse Media obtained data on all sewage spills statewide since the start of 2009 from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
An analysis of those reported spills shows Florida’s sewers failed nearly 23,000 times over the past 10 years — a clip of more than six sewer spills each day.
The systems leaked enough human waste to fill about 2,400 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The top cause for the spills was breakage, often from tree root intrusion and exacerbated by the deterioration of aging lines, nearing 80 years old in some communities. Flooding and power loss from storms also pounded the systems in coastal areas, causing massive amounts of sewage to flow out.
Households contributed by rinsing fats such as bacon grease down the sink and flushing baby wipes, which can clog pipes and force ruptures — like the one that pushed 80,000 gallons of untreated wastewater into Bradenton’s Wares Creek in January.
EXPLORE THE DATA: https://stories.usatodaynetwork.com/sewers/data/
Utility officials recognize the problem but say their hands are tied. They’re trying to extend the life of sewers with patchwork repairs. That’s because it could require hundreds of billions of dollars to bring the state’s older infrastructure up to modern standards, experts estimate.
“It’s really hard to get ahead of it,” said Bill Riebe, utilities director for the City of Sarasota. “It’s better to invest early, so you’re not in that fire drill. But it’s a monumental task.”
“It boils down to money,” he said. “The pipe is all underground, so it’s out of sight, out of mind. Nobody bothers with utilities until they don’t work.”
‘Very expensive to replace’
Most sewers in Florida use gravity to usher waste from homes and businesses to neighborhood lift stations, where it is stored and pumped into pressurized mains, which then take the sewage to the treatment plant.
Municipalities have hundreds of miles of these sewer lines buried beneath ground.
When Florida first introduced sewers, it was common for the pipes to be made from baked clay. Cast iron later became the standard and now it’s mostly PVC plastic.
But many systems throughout the state are still using those older lines — leaving them more susceptible to damage.
Human wastewater contains hazardous hydrogen sulfide, created by the human body during food digestion and responsible for the odor from decay. Hydrogen sulfide can be highly corrosive, eating away at sewer pipes over time. Depending on when a municipality was developed, many of these sewers are now flirting with their 75-year lifespan.
“We really have a sewer crisis in the state of Florida,” said Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper. “There’s an extreme need to have a comprehensive, holistic discussion. When you have a state growing like Florida, this isn’t going to get any better if we’re not dealing with it comprehensively.”
It’s not a problem unique to Florida. The nation’s wastewater infrastructure was rated as a D+ on a report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Florida was given a C.
“The infrastructure is getting older, it’s very expensive to replace and people don’t think about it, or don’t want to pay a bigger sewer bill,” said Rebecca Shelton, a member of ASCE’s Committee on America’s Infrastructure who worked on the wastewater report card. “There’s still a long ways to go.”
In a state surrounded by salt water, the consequences magnify.
Some 980 million gallons of wastewater from reported spills have entered Florida waterways during the past decade alone. That includes about 220 million gallons of raw sewage, according to DEP data.
The blue-green algae blooms that have become commonplace in areas including Palm Beach, Stuart and Lake Okeechobee feed directly off the nutrients in this wastewater, utility officials told GateHouse Media.
And although scientists want to see more research on the impacts to naturally-occurring red tide, most experts agree that human fecal matter can potentially exacerbate the spread.
“If you think about what’s in the wastewater, much of it contains nitrogen and phosphate — two of the driving forces behind the formation and proliferation of algae blooms,” said Jerry Phillips, a former attorney with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, who worked on cases involving wastewater violations. “And when the nutrients meet red tide, it just explodes.”
‘A lot of old pipes’
Aside from age, sewers also take a beating from Florida’s storms.
When power goes out during heavy rain, lift stations without a generator will shut down. People are still flushing their toilets, but that water is not pumped into the main lines. Instead, it backs up and overflows at the lift station — usually through the manhole cover.
Rain also finds its way into sewage pipes, overwhelming the systems with more volume than the lines can handle. It’s called infiltration and inflow — and it can produce massive sewage leaks during hurricanes, like 2017’s Irma, which pounded the state’s west coast and forced a massive evacuation.
Storms even contribute to pollution from reclaimed water — treated wastewater used for things like irrigation — when rain forces the storage tanks to overflow. Although reclaimed water is less harmful than raw sewage, it can still contain toxins.
The Department of Environmental Protection says it tries to focus on outreach before a storm to ensure utilities are prepared. The agency also will levy fines for wastewater violations.
“The Department’s focus is working with facilities on the front end so services are restored as soon as possible, and in the case of wastewater facilities, to ensure spills are prevented,” a DEP spokesman wrote in an email statement.
Since 2009, rain and power losses produced unpermitted releases totaling nearly 1 billion gallons of wastewater.
Nowhere was harder hit than the Tampa Bay region.
The DEP’s Southwest regulatory district — which includes seven counties from Manatee up to Citrus and east to Polk — was responsible for 56 percent of the total sewage spilled during the past decade.
That’s nearly 10 times more wastewater than was spilled in the Southeast district — comprising Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and the entire Treasure Coast, records show.
Environmentalists point to a lack of proper maintenance and an unwillingness from local governments to spend money to replace aging sewer lines.
“Maintaining a sewage infrastructure is one of the government’s basic requirements,” said Justin Bloom, executive director of the Suncoast Waterkeeper, which litigated St. Petersburg and Gulfport over sewer issues. “What’s happened over the past few decades, the municipalities have let their sewage infrastructure deteriorate.”
Last year, Fort Lauderdale officials approved a plan to borrow $200 million to fix the city’s failing sewage systems.
The City of Sarasota spends about $14 million a year for basic sewer maintenance, with $64 million in capital improvement projects on the books related to wastewater. In Sarasota alone, the utility director estimates it would cost up to $4 billion to replace the entire wastewater and utilities system.
Across the state, it could be hundreds of billions.
But the longer municipalities wait, the more the cost will add up, while the environmental toll mounts, said Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who sponsored legislation under consideration this session that would fine utilities up to $2 per gallon of sewage spilled.
“I just could not believe the massive amount of damage we’re doing,” Gruters said. “We have a lot of infrastructure issues in this state — and a lot of old pipes — but it’s unacceptable.
“We are failing our state.”
HOW WE DID IT: GateHouse Media requested data for all reported sewage spills dating back to 2009 from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The agency provided seven separate Excel spreadsheets, which GateHouse journalists merged into one master file. Reporters then standardized several messy data fields, including the dates, volume spilled, wastewater characteristics, county and regulatory district. Journalists also corrected confirmed errors pertaining to spill volumes in the data and removed duplicate entries. The details provided for each wastewater incident come from the initial report made to the state’s warning point operator. The reports usually do not contain the follow-up activities taken by the utility or enforcement from the state.
Download all the data here.
Anyone with questions about the reporting or data analysis can contact Josh Salman at firstname.lastname@example.org.