Watering cutbacks on way

Published January 6, 2007

Despite rain on Christmas and New Year's, the Tampa Bay region is facing a serious drought - so serious that next week state officials are expected to order everyone in a 16-county area to limit lawn watering to one day a week.

The board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District will meet Tuesday in an emergency session where they are scheduled to declare a district-wide water shortage, said Swiftmud spokesman Mike Molligan.

"We've been under abnormally dry conditions for some time now," Molligan said Friday. "Although we're getting some rain now, we don't know what's going to come in the future."

Swiftmud covers a section of the Florida Gulf Coast from Levy to Charlotte counties, home to an estimated 4-million residents. The winter rainfall is 11 inches below normal throughout the region, and in some places it has fallen as much as 15 inches, spurring the recommendation for emergency restrictions, Molligan said.

At this point, he said, "we'd have to get 140 percent of the normal rainfall for this time of the year to get back up even to what's normal by the start of the rainy season." The dry season is supposed to end in early June.

The last time Swiftmud imposed mandatory once-a-week restrictions on this region was in 2000, during the worst drought in 50 years.

That year, the dry conditions sparked widespread wildfires. Rivers, lakes and ponds throughout the state dropped to record low levels, to the point where anglers and boaters had given up some Central Florida lakes as lost forever.

The current conditions are not as dire, but southwest Florida is far from alone in grappling with a water shortage. On the state's east coast, rainfall through the first 10 months of 2006 was among the lowest on record, and the water level in Lake Okeechobee has dropped more than 3 feet below its usual depth this time of year.

Current watering restrictions vary among counties and the cities within those counties.

Some utilities in Swiftmud's region, including Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and Tampa, already restrict watering to one day a week. Molligan said about 2.5-million people are already required to follow that routine.

But the other 1.5-million have been allowed to run their sprinklers twice a week. Those homeowners and business owners -- in Crystal River, Dade City, Temple Terrace, Tarpon Springs and St. Petersburg, among other places - are likely to be ordered to cut back.

"Hallelujah, it's about time," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who chairs the board of Tampa Bay Water, which supplies water to utilities in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. In recent months the wholesale utility has repeatedly requested everyone to switch to once-a-week watering, she said.

Some listened. Hillsborough County imposed once-a-week watering Dec. 16, publicizing the cutback in newspaper advertisements and water bills.

"Our water conservation team is out there every day enforcing those restrictions and writing citations," said Michelle Van Dyke, a spokeswoman for the county's Water Resource Services Department. "We already take enforcement seriously."

While St. Petersburg allows twice-a-week watering, Mayor Rick Baker said residents are already adept at conserving water, so much so that the city is consuming 7-million gallons less water a day than it consumed last year. He predicted little resistance to a Swiftmud order to cut back to once-a-week watering.

The city of Tampa never lifted one-day-a-week watering restrictions put in place last spring.

"The situation through this rainy season didn't improve much, so we knew going into this dry season we needed to be conservative," said Steve Daignault, Tampa's administrator of public works and utilities.

Even as demand for water is increasing, rainfall is far below average. That means the flow of the rivers where the utility gets millions of gallons is too low to draw much water.

As a result the utility has tapped its reservoir early. In December 2005 it stood at 15-billion gallons, full to the brim and ready for the dry season. It's now down to 11.5-billion gallons.

Over the past 20 years, America's per capita consumption of water has dropped - but not Florida's, said Cynthia Barnett, a reporter for Florida Trend magazine (an affiliate of the St. Petersburg Times) and author of the forthcoming book, Mirage: Florida and the Disappearing Water of the East.

In Florida, federal studies show per-person water use has climbed from less than 140 gallons a day in 1955 to 174 gallons a day now.

Ronnie Duncan, now a Pinellas commissioner and Tampa Bay Water board member, was a Swiftmud board member during the 2000 drought. He predicted the public will readily respond to the call for increased water conservation this time.

"Most people are not going to say, 'We don't care, we don't give a rat's rear and we're going to do whatever we want,' " he said.

Times staff writers Janet Zink and Bill Varian contributed to this report.

Public hearing

The Southwest Florida Water Management District Board will meet at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in its Brooksville office for a public hearing on the proposal for emergency water restrictions.

On the Web


The Southwest Florida Water management District Board will meet at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in its Brooksville Office for a public hearing on the proposal for emergency water restrictions. THEIR WEBSITE IS: http://www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/