Now that the sky's soaking lawns all by itself, Swiftmud votes to relax its once-a-week edict. Cities and counties look to follow.
By DAN DeWITT
Published August 27, 2003
BROOKSVILLE - It may have been the worst drought in Florida history. Rivers and lakes dried up, wells sputtered and water cops patrolled neighborhoods.
On Tuesday, after more than a year of heavy rains, regional water managers gave the clearest sign yet that the drought is now a memory.
With formerly parched lakes in Pasco and Hillsborough counties now nearly full, the Southwest Florida Water Management District voted to relax the once-a-week rule on watering lawns.
If local governments go along, and most have indicated they will, Tampa Bay Water customers will return to the twice-a-week rule that has been in place for a decade.
"We asked the public (to conserve). The public has complied," said Watson Haynes, vice chairman of the district's governing board. "I don't think we should punish the public any longer."
The district, commonly called Swiftmud, imposed once-a-week watering in May 2000.
It eased the restrictions in the rest of the district in October 2001, after aquifers and rivers had returned to predrought levels.
At the time, though, the lakes near Tampa Bay Water's 11 well fields in Pasco and northern Hillsborough remained stubbornly low.
These lakes now are at least as high as they were before the drought began in 1999. That's a result of plentiful rainfall and decreased pumping, said Bobby Lue, who supervises the district's agreement with Tampa Bay Water.
Tampa Bay, which pumped more than 200-million gallons a day from these wells at the peak of the drought, has pumped less than half that amount over the past year, Lue said.
Swiftmud serves Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, as well as Tampa, St. Petersburg and several smaller cities.
Most of these local governments seemed inclined to follow Swiftmud's lead.
Patricia Anderson, director of water resources for St. Petersburg, said the City Council will make the decision, though she expects no objections.
The Pinellas County Commission will consider changing the rule at an upcoming meeting.
Hillsborough commissioners, anticipating the Swiftmud vote, recently asked staffers to prepare an amendment to its watering ordinance that they can consider soon.
"I believe economics and sound science are what the action should be based on," said Commissioner Jim Norman, who initiated the move. "That's what we did."
The city of Tampa also plans to return to twice-a-week watering.
Pasco County, on the other hand, may not loosen the rules in the near future, said Bruce Kennedy, the county's utilities director.
"We don't have any plans at this time," he said.
At Tuesday's meeting, board member Edward Chance thought the decision to lift the once-a-week restriction was obvious.
He noted that most of the people in the audience came to talk about flooding.
"To hear us say you can't water seems kind of ludicrous," he said. "It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense."
But board member Janet Kovach said she couldn't justify lifting the restriction for watering lawns when the board recently denied a farmer a pumping permit near one of the well fields.
"Half of the public pumping goes for an aesthetic purpose," she said.
These considerations really did not matter, said other Swiftmud board members and general counsel Bill Bilenky.
When the governing board imposed the tighter restrictions it justified them by documenting the chronically low water levels. If those levels have climbed, the restrictions cannot be legally justified.
"I don't think we should allow the emergency order to continue when the conditions on which it was based no longer exist," said board member Ronald Johnson.
But Judy Williams, a Pasco County water activist, said the rules have accomplished more than just saving water in the short term. They have taught people the habit of conserving water. That lesson should be reinforced for the time when dry weather inevitably returns.
"I know it's rained a lot, but I'd rather keep the water in the ground," Williams said.
-Times staff writers Bill Varian, Carrie Johnson, Mike Sandler, Brady Dennis and Melia Bowie contributed to this report.