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Panama City Beach $21M Offshore Stormwater Pipeline Project Moving Forward

City of Panama City Beach
An offshore stormwater pipeline system will combine and replace two outfalls along Front Beach Road in Panama City Beach.

The shorelines in both Panama City Beach, Florida and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina are lined with high-rise condos and hotels, amusement parks and gift shops.

Soon the two tourist towns will manage stormwater in a similar way.

The same engineers that built offshore stormwater pipelines in Myrtle Beach are designing a system in Panama City Beach. Builders plan to install the offshore pipeline a few feet below the sea floor, where it will extend 1,500 feet out into the Gulf of Mexico. The outfall will release treated stormwater into the ocean, dispersing it in the salt water away from the shoreline.

Right now, stormwater that flows into the ocean is released onto the sandy beach, contributing to shoreline pollution, beach erosion, neighborhood flooding and poorer water quality in the surf zone, said the city’s Public Works Director Kelly Jenkins.

The stormwater outfall pipes serving the Lullwater and Calypso communities along Front Beach Road have been clogged since Hurricane Michael. But they’re generally difficult to maintain, she said. “We have to straighten them out a lot. They meander. They take turtle nests. They take bird nesting areas,” Jenkins said. “It’s an ongoing maintenance problem for us and a beach erosion problem.”

They’ve also contributed to flooding upstream, she said. During Hurricane Sally, for instance, the stormwater pipes serving the Lullwater community were backed up with sediment and other debris. As a result, the homes in the neighborhood flooded, Jenkins said.

“We felt very helpless watching that,” Jenkins said. “We try to keep all of the beach outfalls from stopping up so that the upstream doesn’t clog. In that case, it was unsafe for our crews to go out there.”

Jenkins says that shouldn’t happen again in Lullwater with the new offshore outfall releasing stormwater far out into the ocean instead of on top of the sand, where erosion could occur.

City officials need to secure state environmental permits before construction on the pipeline may begin. “We want the design to be done in nine to twelve months,” Jenkins said at a town hall meeting in February. “The permitting always is the harder part.”

Jenkins says she's not sure how long that will take because no other offshore stormwater pipelines have been constructed along the state's Gulf Coast, even though the city of Naples is planning to build two stormwater outfalls in the gulf.

The Panama City Beach project has recently secured funding. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced last week the town will get about $21 million in federal Hurricane Michael recovery aid to build the pipeline.

“This is something that will help us prepare for future storms and also reduce post-disaster costs and losses,” DeSantis said.

The new offshore pipeline will replace two outfalls along Front Beach Road - combining the stormwater pipe system connecting the Lullwater and Calypso communities. The town was spared most of the hurricane's damage, unlike the rest of Bay County. But beach erosion during Michael clogged some of the town's stormwater pipes, contributing to neighborhood flooding months following the disaster.

Before Myrtle Beach city officials built offshore pipelines, thousands of cigarette butts were ending up on the sandy shoreline, said Eric Sanford, an engineer at DDC Engineers.

“People just discharge them out the windows and they end up on the beaches,” Sanford said. “Turtles were getting ahold of them and everything. We had a problem.”

DDC has designed and built at least two offshore stormwater pipelines in the town. Sanford says the beaches there have since been much cleaner.

Panama City Beach has hired DDC to build the same system along Florida's Gulf Coast in hopes of achieving the same.

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.