The Aftermath of the “Poonami”

A sign posted at Eckerd College Tuesday warns students that it's still not safe to swim in Frenchman's Creek.

A sign posted at Eckerd College Tuesday warns students that it’s still not safe to swim in Frenchman’s Creek.

St. Petersburg made a decision that affected the citizens of Gulfport last week, pumping sewage water into Clam Bayou – a reported 15.4 million gallons of water-diluted sewage, in fact.

According to Ben Kirby, communications director for St. Petersburg, the sewage was pumped into a ditch that ultimately flowed into Clam Bayou, the body of water that boarders both St. Petersburg and Gulfport, and closed Gulfport’s beach.

“This is what had to be done,” Kirby said. “Here is the alternative to the pumping: Raw sewage coming up through pipes and manhole covers on the streets of St. Petersburg and Gulfport.”

“The issue is aging infrastructure,” Gulfport’s City Manager Jim O’Reilly said. “It may be bridges in Michigan, it may be sanitary sewers in Florida, it may be roadways in the big cities. It’s infrastructure.”

O’Reilly emphasized that the sewer system of Gulfport is aging and is in need of updating. Kirby stated that in regard to the age of St. Petersburg’s sewer systems, some pipes are much newer than others, and the city of St. Petersburg has invested significantly over many years in the quality of the system.

According to Dr. Mark Luther, professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, as rain fell, the water saturated into the ground and percolated into the old pipes underground.

“Sewer lines, as they age, have cracks and rainwater goes through the cracks in the sewer lines and the treatment plants become overwhelmed. That’s what happened,” Luther said. “The wastewater treatment facility by Eckerd College was totally overwhelmed by all that rain water getting in the sewer system and [St. Petersburg] didn’t have a lot of options.”

According to Kirby, the water treatment plants just could not handle the extra water.

“If we tried to contain it in those containers, it would have had to have gone somewhere, and where it would have gone is up through your water pipes, out your sink, out your toilet, and up through manhole covers,” Kirby explained.

Kirby said pumping the excess water and sewage into ditches leading to the bayou is not intended to be a “good scenario,” but that it allowed the city to avoid what would be considered the “worst case scenario” – sewage in homes and in the street.

“We have the ability to close off the beaches, close off the water ways, and certainly communicate to our colleagues and friends in Gulfport,” Kirby said.

Before the pumping began, Eckerd College experienced the “worst case scenario” when they discovered 18 inches of partially treated water flooding their campus in what has been dubbed the “Poonami” by students.

“Our folks had to jump into action and dug a ditch to divert the flow [of water] away from the building and into a retention pond on our campus,” Tom Scherberger, director of communications for the college, said.

Along with threatening buildings, the water flowed over baseball fields located next to the southwest water treatment facility and flooded the main car road through the campus.

The water altered some day-to-day operations and forced shut downs of all water-related activities such as sailing, paddle boarding, and the swim test, which all freshman must pass in order to be allowed to participate in water activities. The swim test takes place in Frenchman’s Creek, but had been closed due to the sewage.

However, long-term damage is not expected, according to Luther.

“Most of the effects are going to be very short,” Luther said. “There’s a couple of things that will happen; the bacterial load is the most immediate effect. Then the nutrients that come out of all of that cause algae blooms and the water itself will be dark brown in color due to colored dissolved organic matter.”

Luther explains that the algae blooms could block sunlight from shining on the bay floor and cause seagrass beds to die off temporarily. Also, high amounts of bacteria and nutrients use much of the oxygen, leaving little for fish to breathe and may cause fish to die off.

Other bacterial problems will arise from the mass amounts of fresh water that were dumped in the bay as well, according to Luther.

Vibrio vulnificus is a naturally-occurring marine bacteria that thrives when large amounts of fresh water mix with salt water, possibly because of the excess nutrients. This is the bacteria that makes you sick when eating bad oysters, but could also infect open wounds in those with poor immune systems.

“That’s why people have been warned to not go swimming in bay waters if you have cuts of any kind,” Luther said.

Gulfport and St. Petersburg city officials and scientists are expecting Mother Nature to take course and clean the bay naturally with tides. Since Clam Bayou and Boca Ciega Bay are both bodies of water surrounded by land, it may take longer for the tides to clean them out.

“Anywhere close to the open Gulf, there’s a lot of ‘new’ Gulf of Mexico water being sloshed in with the tides,” Luther said. “Boca Ciega Bay is hemmed in with all the causeways and barrier islands, so the only exchange between Boca Ciega Bay and the open Gulf is through Pass-A-Grille or Frenchman’s Creek that goes through the intercoastal.”

But the irony in this,  Luther explains, is the large amounts of fresh water pumped with the sewage will help clean the bayou quicker.

Density gradients are produced from more-dense salt water sinking below the less-dense fresh water. This sets up pressure gradient forces and pushes clean saltwater in at the bottom even faster than tides and will drive the flushing of the bay.

It could take a minimum of one to two weeks for the water levels in all areas to be deemed safe, though Gulfport Beach was tested, cleared and reopened Tuesday.

According to officials from both Gulfport and St. Petersburg, plans are in place to make sure that this contamination will not happen again.

The city of Gulfport approved $1.5 million this past year to fix the aging sewers. The on-going effort includes spot-fixing problematic areas and the city will assess what else will need to be fixed in January of 2016.

St. Petersburg is finalizing plans to make a new 10 million gallon storage facility at the southwest water treatment plant to up the capacity.

“If we had this new container last week,” Kirby said, “we would not be having this conversation.”

Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson met with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman on Wednesday to discuss further action.

“I think St. Petersburg got stuck with a tough choice,” Henderson said on Tuesday. He also explained that there are no hard feelings towards St. Petersburg and they did what needed to be done given the situation.

“I would much rather work with our neighbors to the east and do some positive things and solve the problem,” Henderson said.

Kirby also stated that St. Petersburg will be sending street sweepers to clean the streets of Gulfport at no cost as a gesture of good will.

But good will may not be what the citizens of Gulfport are looking for.

Since the spill, Vice Mayor Yolanda Roman issued a letter voicing her anger at the situation.

“I have been passionate about this since the day it came to my attention,” Roman said. “Bottom line is, this can never happen again.”

The closing of the beaches has also been difficult for citizens who rely on the waterfront  economy.

“I took my boat out where the dump occurred,” said business owner and Gulfport resident Kurt Zuelsdorf. “It was heartbreaking. The water looked like milk chocolate.”

Zuelsdorf has been the owner of Kayak Nature Adventures for 11 years and said he has lost nearly $4,000 since closing his business after the dumping began.

“I’ve had to shut down immediately. I’m rejecting business every day and    canceling reservations,” Zuelsdorf explained. “I’ve had to get out [of town]. Sitting and watching this unfold, it’s tough to stomach. To see them use an archaic method of dumping sewage is unacceptable.”

Others in town agree. Cindy Davis is leading the charge in lawsuit against St. Petersburg over the incident. Fighting for Clam Bayou’s protection is something she’s well versed in. Davis has twice filed suit and won against the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the bayou.

“I hope that St. Petersburg will step up and do the right thing,” Davis said. “They can’t be proud of dumping 15.4 million gallons of raw sewage into Clam Bayou estuary.”

Gulfport resident Barbara Banno led a group of over 20 citizens to meet with O’Reilly and Gulfport Public Works Director Don Sopak on Monday to speak their mind on the topic and express their concern for their city.

“I was excited to see that the citizens of Gulfport were mad about this,” Zuelsdorf, who also attended the meeting, said. “It was a conversation like no other.”

Banno is also leading the charge in urging as many Gulfport citizens as possible to attend both the Gulfport City Council meeting on August 18 as well as the upcoming St. Petersburg City Council meeting.

On Tuesday, Gulfport deemed Gulfport Beach waters safe and has since opened the beach to the public. Clam Bayou and the surrounding waters including the marina are still under the supervision and testing of St. Petersburg and remain closed as of press time. See updates and the latest water testing results at the city of Gulfport’s website, mygulfport.us.

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