County restricts water usage
By BILL VARIAN and CRAIG PITTMAN
TAMPA -- An indignant Hillsborough County Commission on Tuesday approved tighter watering restrictions for the south-central part of the county under mounting pressure from regional governments to clamp down.
At the same time, commissioners voted to seek an administrative hearing to challenge a Southwest Florida Water Management District order Tuesday that they tighten the spigot.
Commissioners said portions of the Swiftmud order were inaccurate, then declined to say how, citing the pending hearing.
They said Hillsborough has been forced to carry the burden of supplying the region's water, has worked to conserve it, but that its residents have only gotten higher prices as a result.
"The emperor has no clothes," said Commissioner Ronda Storms, who is one of two county representatives on Tampa Bay Water, the regional governmental utility that supplies most of the water for Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. "Not only that, the emperor is fat and ugly," she said, referring to Swiftmud.
"Not only is the emperor fat and ugly . . . he's a bully, too."
Chris Hart, also on the Tampa Bay Water board, said that unlike the utility, commissioners must consider economic and lifestyle factors, along with environmental concerns.
"People who move here choose a lifestyle that includes green lawns," he said.
Commissioner Jan Platt was alone among commissioners to agree with the Swiftmud order. She voted in favor of the restrictions, saying they were better than doing nothing.
Platt noted that commissioners still have not banned the 30-day continuous watering allowance for people with new lawns, as the city of Tampa has.
"This community has not gotten serious," she said. "This is half-hearted and falls short."
The new Swiftmud restrictions in the south-central Hillsborough area ban sprinkler system watering of existing lawns and landscaped areas through Aug 31. However, they do not apply to people with low-volume irrigation sprinkler systems, who may water once a week, or to the use of hoses with water-flow controlling nozzles.
The Swiftmud order cites Tampa Bay Water because of anticipated overpumping of water in the region. The utility faces fines of up to $10,000 a day if it doesn't curb water usage.
The order contends Hillsborough's water usage in the south-central area is "wasteful and unnecessary." It predicts pumping in the area is about to exceed permitted levels despite a drought-driven call to cut down on watering.
Throughout most of the Tampa Bay area, water usage is down 2.6 percent from last year. But in fast-growing south-central Hillsborough -- east of Interstate 75 and south of Temple Terrace and New Tampa -- it's up by 6 percent.
The area affected by the lawn watering ban includes most of the suburbanized communities from Hillsborough Avenue south to Sun City Center. It takes in the area around Dover west to near Tampa city limits and Tampa Bay.
Several Swiftmud board members expressed consternation toward Hillsborough County officials, depicting them as parochial and unenlightened about the need to conserve water.
Banning outdoor watering altogether will cut usage by about 30 percent, which should be sufficient to avoid a pumping crisis, Swiftmud officials said. Given how much rain has fallen lately, they said such a ban does not appear to be too onerous.
"We are not talking about, in my opinion, rocket science," Swiftmud governing board chairman Ronnie Duncan said. "That would be too much to ask of that County Commission."
The other members of Tampa Bay Water -- Pinellas County, St. Petersburg, Pasco County, New Port Richey and Tampa -- have pretty much gone along with Swiftmud's desire to treat water as a regional resource, Duncan said. Hillsborough has been the exception, he said.
"There are no other problem children," he said. "Hillsborough County has never bought it. Ronda doesn't want to hear it. Chris doesn't want to hear it."
Hillsborough officials promised back in April to send a "call to action" letter to the biggest water users in the south-central county, Swiftmud officials said. But they failed to send any letter until last week, and then it was only an "advisory letter," Swiftmud officials complained.
Commissioners had even received from their own staff a list of seven steps to curtail water use in April, but as of June 21 had failed to implement most of those suggestions, Swiftmud officials contended.
Hillsborough's recalcitrance has exposed a problem with the way Tampa Bay Water was set up that nobody could have foreseen, Duncan said.
Swiftmud cannot take punitive action against Hillsborough, only against the regional water utility, Tampa Bay Water -- even though Hillsborough, not Tampa Bay Water, is the government agency that Swiftmud would like to punish.
"If it were up to me, (Tampa Bay Water) wouldn't be a party to this," Duncan said.
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