The Thomas Street station pumps water back into the Intracoastal Waterway through an outflow pipe nearly a foot wide. It toggles on and off for three-minute bursts when water levels are elevated during high tide and heavy rain. The city has set aside $892,500 for a short-term improvement to the station in the next 18 months. Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Jane Smith
Delray Beach residents who live along the Intracoastal Waterway know when the Thomas Street pump station has stopped working: The stormwater drains overflow or the high tides overwhelm the system and flood Seabreeze Avenue with water 6 to 10 inches deep.
The city higher-ups say the pump station has failed annually for the past few years. But longtime residents say the pump station fails more frequently. The latest malfunction happened in March.
“I think it has happened every few months since the last hurricane,” said Terry Max, a dentist who has lived at the base of Thomas Street for 22 years.
That hurricane was Irma, which passed over southern Palm Beach County in 2017.
Each time, Max calls the city’s Utilities Department.
“They are trying to do everything they can,” Max said. “But I’m not happy about the water in the street. And it’s going to get higher with sea level rise.”
The water often collects on the lawns and in the driveways on the northern end of Seabreeze, which is lower than the southern end, where it intersects with Atlantic Avenue. No residents said water ever got into their homes.
When Seabreeze is flooded, dog owners must take other routes when walking their pets, especially smaller breeds with short legs.
Delray Beach staff and commissioners know they have about 10 years to act. Then, the Intracoastal waters are forecast to rise over the current sea walls and flood city land and private property.
About 20 miles of sea walls are held privately while the city owns just 1 mile.
Station listed as top priority
At its strategic planning session on April 26, the City Commission ranked its capital improvement priorities from a top 10 list created by department heads. The top four were deemed both important and urgent.
The Thomas Street pump station was first, followed by a new fire station on Linton Boulevard that will be hurricane-hardened to serve as an Emergency Operations Center. The third priority covered adding sidewalks, making others wheelchair accessible and resurfacing roads.
“It will take $7 million to make the sidewalks wheelchair accessible,” said Missie Barletto, deputy director of Public Works.
The fourth priority was water and sewer improvements, Barletto said.
That next level of projects covers the Osceola Park neighborhood; Tropic Isles roadways near the Intracoastal where groundwater is seeping up through pipes; Pompey Park, and the municipal golf course. The Tropic Isles project calls for the pipes to be lined and the four miles of roads rebuilt.
The other two priorities that department heads listed didn’t make the commission list: a new City Center and water treatment issues in the study phase.
“The problem will be sticking to them,” Mayor Shelly Petrolia said of the priorities, noting that the city will receive pushback from supporters of the projects that were ranked lower. She also said priorities often change when emergencies happen.
In June, the commission will review its capital improvement projects for long-term fixes costing more than $25,000 and lasting at least five years.
In the current financial year, commissioners have set aside $892,500 for a midterm fix at the Thomas Street pump station.
The station dates to the 1970s, Barletto told the commission on April 26.
“The midterm fix includes redesigning the pump station … so that two pumps can fit in the well. If one failed, the other one would turn on,” Barletto said at the April 9 commission workshop. The well holds overflow water until it is pumped back into the Intracoastal.
The city’s design consultant needs another month to determine whether the well can accommodate two pumps and their motors, stormwater engineer Jeff Needle said on April 23.
If all goes according to the plan, the design and construction process will last up to 18 months, Needle said. The city also would buy a backup pump and a generator to make sure the pumps work during power failures.
Neal de Jesus, the interim city manager who was the city’s fire chief, said Delray Beach needs to buy interchangeable pumps and motors so that when one goes out, the city has another one in stock.
“Right now, we have a lot of this one works here, and we need a completely different one for over here,” de Jesus said at the April 2 commission meeting. “We can’t afford to stock all those pumps.”
He told commissioners that the midterm fix for the Thomas Street station will last between six and 10 years, depending on how fast the sea level rises.
A long-term fix for that pump station, one that will last about 30 years, “is a big-ticket item,” de Jesus said.
“At the time it was put into the capital budget, its cost was about $6 million,” de Jesus said. “Now, it’s closer to $10 million” to pay for four pumps, their motors and an expanded well that can hold the equipment.
“The well that was put in there many years ago was probably too small at the time,” de Jesus said. “Now, it’s too small for the sea-level rise issues we are dealing with.”
The station relies on one 18,000- to 20,000-gallon-per-minute pump. The new stormwater master plan calls for four pumps of that size, Needle said.
If the city expands the well, it will have to pay to remove the groundwater in a process called dewatering from the well next to the Intracoastal and then filter the water before it returns to the Intracoastal, Needle said.
The city doesn’t filter the water now because the midterm fix won’t expand the well, he said.
Since the pump failure on Thomas Street, Delray Beach staff has a bypass system working with rental pumps, Needle said. City employees from its Utilities and Public Works departments work around the clock in eight-hour shifts to make sure the rental pumps are working at high tide.
In March, the city rented large vacuum trucks to remove debris from stormwater drains in area streets.
“The pumps run only at high tide,” said a Utilities Department mechanic who didn’t want to give his name, “I’m a low man on the totem pole.”
Most residents have been courteous, he said in mid-April.
Andy Brown has lived on the northern end of Seabreeze for seven years.
“The city has certainly devoted a lot of resources out here. They are not ignoring the problem,” he said. “Whether it solves the (flooding) problem,” time will tell.
Ann Glaize, who has lived at the intersection of Seabreeze and Thomas for 23 years, said she’s confident the city will fix the stormwater problem. “I love this street,” she said.
Max, the dentist, also loves his location: “Two blocks from the ocean and two blocks from Atlantic Avenue. What’s not to love?”