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Dry period forces cuts in water use

Swiftmud limits nearly all residents to once-a-week lawn watering, alters hours.

Published January 9, 2007


BROOKSVILLE — With the Green Swamp thirsty for rain and the Withlacoochee River nearly dry, the Southwest Florida Water Management District declared Tuesday that everyone in its 16-county area must cut back water use for the next six months.

Local governments such as St. Petersburg that had been letting residents water their lawns two days a week must restrict them to once a week, beginning next Tuesday  and lasting until July 31.

Even governments already restricting lawn watering to once weekly will have to cut the hours. Irrigation that could run until 10 a.m. now must occur before 8 a.m., while evening watering that was allowed to start at 4 p.m. now must wait until after 6.

“Everybody needs to start doing their part,” said Dave Moore, executive director of the state agency commonly known as Swiftmud.  

There are exceptions to the restrictions. For instance, they do not apply to new planting, such as landscaping for newly built subdivisions and stores.

And Moore said the drought will not stop Swiftmud from approving new water consumption permits over the next six months.

“Management of water availability is a long-term problem, while water shortages are a short-term problem,” he said.

He said Swiftmud can’t declare a moratorium on development, even during a drought that is causing the underground aquifer to drop below normal conditions.

“Under the statutory authority of the water management districts, we don’t control growth,” he said. “Growth decisions are made at the local level.”

On Dec. 1, when Moore and his staff were first considering tighter watering restrictions, the board of Swiftmud approved permits that allowed developers to pump more than 900,000 gallons of water a day from the aquifer in Polk and Sumter counties.

Some users are already pumping more than their allotted share — with few consequences.

Haines City, for instance, has been using 4.16-million gallons a day, nearly 12 percent more than its permitted  of 3.73-million.

So last month Swiftmud changed Haines City’s permit, raising the limit to 5.71-million gallons per day. “The increases are needed because of an increase in population,” Swiftmud announced in a news release.

And last year Zephyrhills topped its permitted daily average of 2.75-million gallons by nearly 200,000 gallons a day. In the past two months the city has been able to reduce its water usage to the legal limit, said Louie Sellars, utilities superintendent. But it’s getting harder to stay within its means as new residents drive up water use, he said.
Hernando County is by far the biggest offender on Swiftmud’s list. Its two permits allow it to pump 21-million gallons per day, but it has been overpumping by 2.5-million gallons per day, according to Swiftmud.  Like Haines City and Zephyrhills, Hernando County has asked Swiftmud for more water.

Swiftmud has threatened to fine Hernando, but that’s a step the agency rarely takes. It imposed no fines last year.

 No matter what the weather, Swiftmud’s policy is generally to avoid imposing fines and instead concentrate on getting the violators to start complying with their permits, said Swiftmud attorney Bill Bilenky.

Signs of an impending water crisis have been popping up since last summer. Rainfall has been light everywhere except in some coastal counties such as Pinellas and at Tampa International Airport.

In Citrus, Hernando, Pasco and other counties, the rainfall fell so short that Swiftmud classified it as “critically abnormal.”

One hard-hit area is the Green Swamp, the source of four of Central Florida’s rivers: the Withlacoochee, Hillsborough, Okalawaha and Peace.

Two of those, the Hillsborough and the Peace, supply drinking water. So when the Green Swamp goes thirsty, it cuts into the water supply for Tampa and Sarasota.“The Withlacoochee River near Holder is nearly empty,” Moore said.

Low flows on rivers, such as the Alafia, cut into the supply available for Tampa Bay Water’s customers. Instead the utility must get water from underground pumping or tap its new 15-billion-gallon reservoir. In October, the reservoir held about 14-billion gallons. As of Jan. 1, it was down to 10-billion gallons.

Moore said he had been contemplating the stepped-up restrictions as early as November, but held off because forecasters said the El Nino weather pattern was likely to bring heavy rains in December.

But those storms did not materialize, and now forecasters say El Nino is dissipating. The last time there was El Nino, Moore said, plenty of rain fell, but when it ended, “it was like someone shut the rainfall off.”

And the summer rainy season won’t arrive until June.

“We’ve got another five months of dry season to get through,” said Granville Kinsman, Swiftmud’s director of hydrological data. “We’ve got to get more rain to keep the water supply flowing.”

Craig Pittman can be reached at Asjylyn Loder can be reached at or (352)754-6127.

[Last modified January 9, 2007, 22:30:16]

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