Over the past two months, more than 65,000 gallons of raw sewage flowed freely through the streets and ditches of Panama City, right into local waterways.
Two leaks happened in August. On August 13th, a lift station malfunctioned allowing 5,100 gallons of raw sewage to escape into a storm drain, then into Johnson Bayou. On August 30th, 4,500 gallons of sewage discharged into St. Andrews Bay near Massalina Bayou after an air release cap on a force main broke.
Then on September 16th 54,000 gallons of raw sewage discharged into St. Andrew Bay because a lift station malfunctioned on Corto Street. And finally, but almost certainly not for the last time, 1,800 gallons of sewage entered Watson Bayou after a recently repaired gravity line main in the stormwater ditch failed.
And the amount of sewage that has spilled from the city’s wastewater system into local waterways in most likely significantly higher. In July, someone discovered sewage leaking into a heavily wooded stormwater ditch that flows into Watson Bayou. No one knows exactly how long it was leaking, nor how much sewage ended up in the water.
“This is absolutely unacceptable. I mean this is Panama City. We’re striving to be the premier city in the Panhandle of Florida and we’ve got to do better.” said City Manager Mark McQueen.
However, the cost of doing better is massive.
“This is going to take a significant investment,” McQueen said. “We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars.”
QUALITY OF LIFE
Every time a significant sewage leak enters a waterway city officials notify Florida’s Department of Health in Bay County and Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.
The Department of Health notifies the public to stay out of the water in that area.
Any healthy person who unknowingly swims amongst the sewage is exposed to bacteria and viruses that could lead to flu-like symptoms, including diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. It’s even worse for swimmers who have open cuts or sores or have weakened immune systems. They could face serious illnesses and even death.
“If you do have any reactions at all we would advise you to seek medical attention,” said Ralph Miller, environmental health director for the Florida Department of Health in Bay County.
Much of Panama City’s sewer system was built in the 1950s using the best technology available at the time. It was also, mostly, the same technology available to the Babylonians about 4,000 years ago, clay pipe.
Clay pipes last an incredibly long time, which is why they are used, but they are susceptible to breaking under pressure. Panama City’s sewer system needed a major overhaul before Hurricane Michael. Now, thanks to fallen trees, the weight from debris trucks and dozens of other post storm factors the system is in even worse shape.
With cracked pipes the sewage still flows, but rain can leak in. During a heavy storm more water ends up in the pipes than there is capacity. Manholes get lifted up and sewage starts running down Panama City streets, officials said.
It isn’t just the sewage system that is antiquated. The city’s water pipes are also 80 years old and many of them are galvanized. They break easily leading to pressure problems that have to be repaired. Also, because of the age of the pipes residents see discolored water.
The city’s water department is dealing with a water line break nearly every day and usually more than one break each day, McQueen said.
McQueen has been city manager for a year and inherited this system. It’s unclear why more wasn’t done to update the system before now. Possibly it was viewed as too expensive a fix and the issue was buried or neglected. Whatever the reason, something must be done, he said.
“Otherwise we are going to have a community that is unsustainable,” McQueen said.
A DECADE FROM NOW
During an interview this week, McQueen was quick to point out that Panama City is far from the only town in the United States dealing with this issue. But what the city does now about this issue will determine Panama City’s future.
“It will define us as a premiere city or a city in decay,” McQueen said.
He added that the city is in the beginning stages of a 10 year plan to replace the sewer system. He hopes to hire an engineering firm to examine the system and then dig down into every stretch of the 300 miles of roadways and alleyways that make up Panama City and replace the clay pipe.
While they are there, the city should replace the water pipes and move power and communications lines underground.
“Why would we not want to do that now,” McQueen said. “We have got to think through this and do it the right way. When we do open those roads we need to do it right.”
Everyone who went through Hurricane Michael understands that a strong storm can knock out power and communication lines. In the weeks after the storm locals and lawmakers have argued that these lines should have already been underground and want companies like Gulf Power to start changing the way they do business.
Gulf Power does bury the lines in new neighborhoods, but they say there are trade-offs to everything. During a flood, utility workers can repair above-ground lines while water in standing-water. But if water takes out an underground line workers have to wait until the water is gone before they begin their work.
Finally, instead of sending treated sewage into the city’s local waterways McQueen hopes to install a reuse system. This water would be funneled back to city residents who could use it in irrigation systems.
The city does not have an exact cost on all of this work. McQueen estimates it could be more than $200 million and possibly $300 million. The city obviously doesn’t have it, so McQueen is looking for federal, state and local funding sources.
He pointed out that President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were, not that long ago, in negotiations for a $1 trillion nationwide infrastructure bill.
“We can do better,” McQueen said. “We’re a first-world nation. 21st-century technology is available to us. We don’t have to expose our citizens or our environment to substandard sanitary sewer systems.”