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Florida's outdated urban drainage systems cause more flooding. But there's a natural solution

Black and white photo of a man with white collar shirt and dark tie standing at the bottom of Phillippe Creek when it was freshly created.
George Gaylord Simpson
State Library and Archives of Florida
Clarence B. Moore, an American archaeologist and writer, standing level with the bone structure on Phillippi Creek canal, east of Sarasota on March 14, 1929.

In the 1900s, swamps and low-lying areas were drained to create more space for development and farming.

Florida has a lot of altered drainage networks, like ditches and canals, but at a recent resiliency summit in Clearwater, it became clear that these are increasingly becoming obsolete and can actually make flooding worse.

There are 80,000 linear miles of stream channels in Florida, and almost two-thirds of those are ditches and canals.

These water systems were originally put in to drain parts of the state for development.

But John Kiefer, an environmental engineer with Black & Veatch who moderated a panel discussion on the subject at the Regional Resiliency Summit, said these are not stable.

"They require perennial maintenance, otherwise they erode — sometimes catastrophically, sometimes chronically," Kiefer told the audience in one of the breakout rooms at the Hilton Clearwater Beach.

He said the eroding sediment could plug up openings, compounding the flooding that's already increasing from climate change.

Along with sea level rise, warmer temperatures cause more water to evaporate from the land and oceans, creating more frequent and heavier rain events.

Kiefer also said altering the landscape causes problems for wildlife, so some fish don't have access to proper water bodies, for instance.

"So, what is the cure? Well, the cure can follow a gradient from near to natural solutions to highly engineered ones," Kiefer said.

These systems can be re-patterned so they process water and sediment more naturally.

Take Sarasota County's Phillippi Creek Watershed, for example.

Kiefer said 95 of the 100 miles of canals there are eligible for this kind of restoration, but a project like this could cost $2 million per mile.

Man with glasses pointing to a projection of his slideshow on urban drainage.
Jessica Meszaros
John Kiefer of Black & Veatch.

Tampa Bay Watershed

The Tampa Bay Watershed covers portions of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota, Polk, and Pasco counties.

Ed Sherwood, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, said the intergovernmental partnership has focused on rewilding the natural creeks and streams that used to flow in Tampa Bay before they were straightened and ditched.

Sherwood talked about “opportunity space,” or land around the water, that’s available along the watershed.

“Our estimates, just looking at the opportunity space in the watershed, is about 450,000 acres. And that's a big amount of area where we can both have the balance of development as well as pursue these restoration opportunities,” Sherwood said.

“Thinking outside the box, in terms of that open space that hasn't been developed yet to get back from the freshwater wetlands, the tidal creek systems, the other marsh systems that ultimately filter the water coming off the land before it entered the estuary and the bay itself.”

The Tampa Bay Estuary program was granted $4.5 million from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law over the period of time between 2022 to 2026.

It’s for restoration projects that have rewilding benefits in both water quality and wildlife habitat for the overall estuarine system.

Sherwood said they’re now getting ready to start implementing some of the plans they’ve been putting together the last couple years.

The federal dollars are dispersed through a Justice40 lens, requiring that 40% of benefits flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution.

Archie Creek in Progress Village, an historically Black neighborhood in Hillsborough County, will get some help with flood resilience, for example.

From left to right: Kelli Hammer Levy with Pinellas County, Ed Sherwood with Tampa Bay Estuary Program, and Bart Weiss with Hillsborough County speaking on an urban drainage panel for the Regional Resiliency Summit.
Jessica Meszaros
From left to right: Kelli Hammer Levy with Pinellas County, Ed Sherwood with Tampa Bay Estuary Program, and Bart Weiss with Hillsborough County speaking on an urban drainage panel for the Regional Resiliency Summit.

Hillsborough and Pinellas

Urban planners say they are having to get more inventive to secure funding for projects.

Bart Weiss, chief officer of innovation and resiliency with Hillsborough County, highlighted Senate Bill 64, which passed in 2021, and stops wastewater utilities from discharging effluent into surface water bodies by January 2032, unless it’s deemed environmentally beneficial.

“We have this huge, I would say, draconian hammer that's gonna drop. And the bad thing that I see is there's no funding to do the right thing,” Weiss said.

So, he said, let’s “make it environment beneficial, or let's put it into potable reuse systems, or other types of reuse systems, but reuse and recycle it for the good because we're growing and we need more water.” 

Weiss also said that multi-purpose projects are in, and single purpose projects are out. For instance, a new wastewater treatment plant could have multiple uses.

It could double as a resiliency hub after hurricanes, where the community can find food, water, charging stations and WiFi.

"Now we're looking at whatever we build, we say OK, if we're gonna build that, what else can we put in there?" Weiss said.

Kelli Hammer Levy, Pinellas County's director of public works, said projects with multiple benefits bring in more funding.

Like right now, she can't get grant funding for everyday maintenance that can be costly.

"But when you add in habitat, and you add in other components and make it more about those bigger picture things, then the grant funding starts to flow,” Levy said.

“You start adding up all of these co-benefits this grant application rights itself.”

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.