By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT, Times Staff Writer
They worried about the smell. They wondered whether it would harm them, or their plants.
As recently as 10 years ago, for example, the Hillsborough County government had to pay developers and golf course owners to use reclaimed water.
Now, some 32,822 residents irrigate with reclaimed water in the 16 counties overseen by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Hillsborough alone has 7,000 reclaimed converts and a three-page waiting list for those who want it. St. Petersburg recently limited reclaimed water to three days a week because its 10,000 customers are overtaxing the system.
Why the change? In an area plagued by persistent drought, reclaimed water has grown immensely popular for two reasons: It is inexpensive, and for many residents, unmetered.
Some residents pay as little as $6 a month for all the reclaimed water they can use.
But the days of cheap water might soon be over.
Reclaimed water has become a hot commodity, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District now wants people to pay more for it and use less so the demand can be met.
"There's a paradigm shift," said Kathy Scott, a conservation program manager with Swiftmud. "We're looking at reclaimed water as a resource that needs to be used efficiently.
"We noticed how when reclaimed water is available to customers, they use about four times more than they need, because all of a sudden they don't have restrictions, and it's cheaper. We're simply asking that they use less," she said.
Once, the supply of reclaimed water was considered bottomless, and cities charged a flat rate. Now, new rules that Swiftmud staff has proposed likely will mean reclaimed water use will be metered in many cases and residents will have to pay by the gallon. Some cities are already beginning to charge by volume:
Tampa signed up about 4,000 customers for its first major reclaimed water system, which will have meters at all connections and rates based on customers' volume of water used.
Dunedin has used volume-based rates since it started providing reclaimed water 10 years ago, and demand far outstrips supply.
Pasco County plans to install meters at each home and charge volume-based rates by late next year.
St. Petersburg, one of the pioneers in providing reclaimed water, has been putting in meters for the past 18 months to new reclaimed water customers, and last year started a four-year program to put meters on all existing connections. The city is considering volume-based rates in the future, according to Patti Anderson, the city's public utilities director.
Last week, the drought and abnormally high temperatures caused low pressure throughout the city's reclaimed water system, and forced St. Petersburg to order three-day-a-week watering restrictions until June 30.
Swiftmud's governing board still must decide whether to approve the changes to begin charging by the gallon its staff has proposed. And if it does, will Swiftmud be discouraging utilities from installing reclaimed water -- something it has been urging them to do for so long?
"They're still going to be able to use it more often and more days than they can with other types of resources," Scott said. With nonreclaimed water users restricted to lawn watering once or twice a week in most Tampa Bay areas "there's still an incentive there (to use reclaimed water). And it still costs less than potable water."
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Other municipalities are finding that paying volume-based rates might be tough medicine for customers who are used to paying a small monthly fee for all the reclaimed water they want.
In November, a public outcry caused Hillsborough County commissioners to back off a plan to charge by the gallon for reclaimed water. Residents argued that when the county initially installed the system, they had agreed to get hooked up on the basis that reclaimed water would be unmetered.
Hillsborough now is metering new neighborhoods and going back to meter its commercial users, said County Administrator Dan Kleman. "It was a tough issue for the board," Kleman said. "The board wanted to do what we could to encourage greater conservation; obviously, metering and billing would do that."
The conditions Swiftmud proposes to place on funding help for reclaimed water programs could stall New Port Richey's plans to provide reclaimed water to all its residents.
One of the new standards that Swiftmud's staff has proposed in offering funding assistance over the next 10 years is that the utility must prove that installing reclaimed water would cut potable water use by 75 percent by 2010. For older communities, where few people irrigate, "a 75 percent efficiency rate is virtually impossible in most existing communities, in my view," said New Port Richey City Manager Gerald Seeber.
New Port Richey decided about two years ago to offer reclaimed water to all residents. But the project will cost $21-million, and if experience is any indication, it will be difficult for the city to meet Swiftmud's requirements.
Last year, New Port Richey spent $730,000 installing reclaimed water transmission lines to a neighborhood. Of the neighborhood's 400 households, only five chose to connect -- and one of those was a City Council member.
Pinellas County, which started providing reclaimed water to residents in the mid 1980s, is extending reclaimed water to its beach communities. But the county has no plans to install meters or charge volume-based rates.
"We think that we can, through educational efforts, show our consumers that you don't need to irrigate with reclaimed water every day to have a healthy yard," said Todd Tanberg, director of alternate water sources with Pinellas County. With that education effort "our customers will regulate themselves."
To encourage smarter use of reclaimed water, Swiftmud has toughened standards utilities must meet to get cooperative funding to build transmission lines.
In 2003, utilities need to put meters at all substantial connections, such as entrances to neighborhoods, golf courses, power plants.
In 2003, in order to get funding help in installing meters on existing reclaimed water connections, customers must be charged volume-based rates.
Swiftmud staff has recommended to its governing board that in 2004, utilities must show that reclaimed water use would offset potable water use by 60 percent. That's up from the current 50 percent requirement. And also recommended to the governing board is that by 2010, utilities must show a 75 percent decrease in the use of potable water.
The staff has also recommended that in 2004, Swiftmud utilities that want funding help must put in meters for all new reclaimed water customers. Swiftmud's governing board has not decided whether to approve those recommendations.
Ronnie Duncan, chairman of Swiftmud's governing board, said that the new standards will be tough for some older cities to swallow -- particularly those where the hookup fees are too hefty for lower-income customers. Duncan vows to find a way to work with them, which could include finding grants or other capital resources to help pay for the projects.
Duncan said that a number of municipalities might have the same challenges that New Port Richey does.
"Before we really impose something that's going to put the local governments in the position of not being able to access cooperative funding, we'll come up with a program to help them where they need the help."
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