Gulfport Beach was closed August 4 for the first time in about 15 years due to heavy rains that saturated soils and caused overloaded sewage systems and sent contaminated water into Boca Ciega Bay.
Gulfport Public Works Director Don Sopak said the beach was closed at 8:30 Tuesday morning after fecal coliform and enterococcus bacteria levels in the water came back from the lab higher than allowed.
“When we get a high count, we have to close the beach,” he said. He said the water would be tested daily until it came back clean, adding that this might take several days. “We’re hoping to get it reopened by the weekend.”
Although the rain had largely stopped Monday afternoon, waterlogged soil and overwhelmed antiquated sewage systems continued to churn water into the bay.
Sopak said the contamination at the beach could have come from any or all of several communities near the bay, including St. Petersburg, Gulfport and St. Pete Beach.
“It’s not uncommon,” he said of sewage systems overflowing. “The infrastructure is so old in every community in the county that most of the communities are having overflow problems.”
Sopak said the rain infiltrates the sewage pipes through cracks, overwhelming them. During the recent heavy rains, Gulfport’s sewage system was pumping 3.4 million gallons per day – its maximum capacity – compared to its usual 1.5 million gallons daily.
Gulfport had one manhole overflow at the intersection of 49th Street and 31st St. S., he said.
Meanwhile, Ben Kirby, a spokesman for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, said city officials there decided to start implementing a series of “controlled bypasses” of the sewage treatment plant near Eckerd College on Monday after the plant exceeded its capacity. Without such action, raw sewage would have started bubbling up through manholes and pipes, he said.
“We’re not dumping raw sewage into Boca Ciega Bay,” he said Tuesday afternoon.
Steven Leavitt, director of St. Petersburg’s Water Resources Department, said that instead of going to the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility near Eckerd, the rain-diluted sewage was going to the Clam Bayou Stormwater Facility at the corner of 26th Avenue and 38th Street S. Although the facility was designed for stormwater, not sewage, he said the floating material was being skimmed off and some of the solids were settling out before the water entered Clam Bayou.
“There will be some bacteria and things escaping the pond and going out into Clam Bayou,” he said. But the effect on the area waters would be short-term,” he said, adding, “There’s a constant natural flushing of the bayou anyway.”
Leavitt said several manholes continued to overflow near the stormwater facility on Tuesday. The controlled bypasses continued through the night Tuesday, but after reassessment Wednesday morning, Leavitt announced that the bypasses had been stopped.