Irrigation Irritation

Stormwater isn't sexy. Efficient stormwater systems don't attract tourist dollars or add a touch of class to a culture-deprived city. But what they lack in sex appeal they make up with utility. That standing water you have to drive thorough on South Dale Mabry? That's a stormwater issue. That nasty muck that settles on the bottom of the Hillsborough River and makes its way into the Bay? That's partially a result of stormwater. When it rains, all of that water has to go somewhere and it takes all of the pollution on the streets and chemicals on lawns right along with it. In Tampa the system that's supposed to keep our streets flood-free and our waterways clear of debris and pollution is missing a lot more than sex appeal; it's also missing accountability, efficiency and a reliable source of cash, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP took over the responsibility of overseeing wastewater programs from the Environmental Protection Agency last year and is in the process of reissuing Tampa's Municipal Separate Stormwater Systems permit or MS4. It's still early in the process, said Mark Bateman of the DEP's MS4 division, but already it's clear that issuing Tampa's permit won't be an easy process. After a review of the city's records the DEP found some things amiss.

"We have found serious flaws, serious shortcomings in their annual reports," said Bateman.

In their 1999 annual report, the city claimed that approximately 19,075 inspections of stormwater drains were done and in the 2000 report the city claimed to have performed 18,154 inspections. These inspections were performed with just three area inspectors and one chief inspector, according to the city. That would mean that each inspector performed more than 17 inspections a day, based on 260 working days a year.

The DEP is more than a little skeptical of Tampa's hardworking inspectors, said Bateman.

"Everybody went, "Wow, 19,000 inspections, that's a lot."

The DEP's inspectors manage an average of two inspections a day. The agency's inspections are more rigorous than the ones the city is required to do, said Bateman, but not that much more rigorous.

"If they're just driving by, they could probably hit 17 a day," he said.

Another problem is the calculations the city used to estimate the impact stormwater has on local waterways. It's impossible to gather actual data because the storm system is so vast, so the city uses models and mathematical calculations to create estimates. But apparently the city used different calculations and models at different times. Without consistency it's impossible to make estimates, said Bateman. There seems to be no way for the city to know if its stormwater program is protecting the environment or causing further damage, he said.

That's a big problem, but the biggest problem: the city's Capital Improvement Projects list. They don't seem to have one. The list should include projects like retrofitting storm drains for flooding, assigning them a priority and explaining how the city plans to pay for them, said Bateman. The agency wants to be sure that if the city is planning to address flooding issues they don't plan to it by just widening a pipe, which would violate the terms of their permit. The DEP wants proof that when a wider pipe is installed, technology that will limit pollution and debris will be installed as well.

The DEP is also interested in hearing how Tampa will pay for these projects. The city is one of the few large municipalities in the state that does not have a stormwater utility fee to provide dedicated funding for stormwater projects. St. Petersburg has one, as do Hillsborough County, Clearwater, Sarasota and Bradenton. In Tampa the money for stormwater comes from a general fund and can be diverted to other projects as the city's administration sees fit. Without a dedicated funding source, Tampa is unable to compete for some government grants that would provide funds for stormwater projects. They also would find it more difficult to get the low-interest loans the DEP offers, said Bateman.

"We're not happy with that," he said. But the agency can't do anything about it. The people who can do something about it, the mayor and the City Council, are apparently unwilling. Councilman Bob Buckhorn said that the issue of a stormwater fee hasn't come up since the late 1980s and probably won't come up anytime soon. The Community Investment Tax, a sales tax that voters approved in a referendum in 1996 to help pay for Raymond James Stadium, was also supposed to generate money for stormwater projects, said Buckhorn. Instead, Mayor Dick Greco diverted a huge chunk of that money to pay for a new museum and an expansion of the Lowry Park Zoo. That bait-and-switch would make it hard for voters to stomach a stormwater tax. "I don't think we can go to the community and say, "We told you we were going to do this before, but we were only kidding. Now we're serious,'" said Buckhorn.

Buckhorn, who's now running for mayor, voted against Greco's plan to use CIT money for development. Although the deed is done, he'd like to see more attention to infrastructure when the next chunk of CIT money is divvied up.

"If you're rotting from the core, it doesn't matter how many tall buildings you put up," he said.

The DEP can't mandate funding, but it has outlined all of its concerns and given the city 60 days to provide answers. Their 60 days are up this week, said Bateman, and the DEP is willing to assume that the city has a reasonable explanation for all of its shortcomings until they've had a chance to review the city's responses. If the city does not provide adequate answers to the DEP's concerns, they could be looking at fines and other enforcement measures, he said.

Ralph Metcalf, director of Tampa's Sanitary Sewers department did not return repeated calls for comment.

It's easy for citizens to ignore stormwater issues if they don't live on waterways or in areas that flood. But for citizens who do live in those areas, the problems are a constant source of frustration. Residents who live along the canals that line West Shore Boulevard have been dealing with the city's stormwater issues since the 1950s and they've run out of patience.

Two citizens groups have taken up the issue: Neighbors Against Stormwater Pollution and SPAHA. They've met with the mayor and lobbied city council members for years in an effort to get the city to remove the sludge they claim the city's stormwater pipes deposit into their canals every time it rains. They have even sent representatives to Tallahassee to meet with DEP officials, all to no avail. "We've tried all of that and gotten absolutely nowhere," said NASP president Scott Hendry.

Canals where the residents used to be able to swim in and keep their boats have been rendered useless by the refuse that gets piped in with the stormwater. "We get one inch of rain and we see this black water," said Hendry. "You see Styrofoam cups, cigarette butts, leaves — anything that anybody throws down on the street — it all ends up right here in front of us."

Debris isn't the only thing that ends up in the canals. There's also the runoff from lawn chemicals in fertilizer, which the residents claim have killed the fish that used to swim in the canals and scared off the manatees that once frequented the warm waters.

The residents want the city to dredge the canals and retrofit the drains so that the debris is cleaned out of the stormwater before it hits the canals. The city doesn't want to foot the bill for the multimillion-dollar project and says it's not entirely to blame.

With or without the storm drains, some natural silting of the canals would have occurred. The runoff from the residents' own lawns and the natural tidal flow would also have piled up in the canals. Last year the city did a "causation study" to determine exactly how much of the canal muck was theirs. An independent engineering firm determined that just 30 percent of the muck belonged to the city and the remaining 70 percent had the residents' names written in it.

The residents beg to differ, citing the same faulty calculations the DEP cited the city for in its inspection. They've had enough of meetings, discussions and studies and are preparing to sue the city, said Hendry. Both groups have met with attorneys and are planning to file a class action lawsuit to get the city to clean up its mess and stop making new ones, said Hendry. They also plan to attend the public hearings the DEP will hold as part of the permit process. The residents want the permit to include language that prevents the city from polluting the waterways and walking away from the damage. The permit says that the city is to use maximum effort and the best technology available to prevent pollution, said Hendry, and that's what should happen. "They made no effort here; they just dug a big hole and dumped the stuff out."

Bateman has heard from the South Tampa groups that are having canal problems and agrees that the city's estimate of 30 percent responsibility is questionable. However the residents may be mistaken in their contention that the city's actions violate its current permit. The permit as the EPA designed it simply isn't very good, said Bateman.

There will likely be a need for an administrative hearing, a legal proceeding where a judge determines the parameters of the permit, in order to make it strong enough to satisfy the residents, said Bateman. But they likely still won't be happy. The DEP can only mandate so much; the rest is up to the city itself.

"Ultimately it all gets down to a matter of priorities," said Buckhorn.

Contact Staff Writer Rochelle Renford at 813-248-8888, ext. 163, or rochelle.renford @weeklyplanet.com.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles

Newsletters

Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.