Water bills may jump a bit

A new charge of several dollars a month would cover the cost of buying extra water.

Published May 4, 2007

TAMPA -- With the city's reservoir 4 feet below normal, officials warned residents Thursday that water bills could be going up several dollars a month.

The city plans to add an extra charge to cover the cost of water it has to buy from Tampa Bay Water to meet high demand.

The new charge, which covers the higher cost of purchasing water rather than relying on the Hillsborough River, will hit bills in a few weeks.

Water department director Brad Baird said he doesn't know yet what the charge will be.

"All we can say is we're gong to use a formula that fairly passes on the charges to all of our customers, " he said.

The charge will be based on how much water customers use and how much the city needs to purchase.

Based on how much water it has to buy this year -- expected to cost between $5-million and $10-million -- and the number of city customers, the charge could be between $36 to $72 per water customer per year.

The city pays the regional utility Tampa Bay Water about $2.20 for every 1, 000 gallons but charges most users less than $2 per 1, 000 gallons.

"This is not a rate increase, " said Elia Franco, a spokesman for the city water department. "It's a pass-through."

The city last raised water rates -- by 3 percent -- in 2005. Previously, the last significant increase was in 1998, when rates went up 15.6 percent.

The surcharge will not be attached to reclaimed water.

Tampa gets most of its drinking water from the Hillsborough River. But during the dry season, when demand exceeds the 80-million gallons per day that the city can legally withdraw from the river, the city buys additional water from Tampa Bay Water.

In the past, the city has paid the utility out of a reserve fund, and the City Council on Thursday approved spending $3.5-million to make a purchase.

The city has had to buy water from Tampa Bay Water during eight out of the past 10 years, which is depleting reserves, Baird said. Now the city needs to collect money from customers.

"It's become the norm to purchase water from Tampa Bay Water, " he said. "We're at the point where growth and drought are affecting us every year."

So far this year, about 6 inches of rain has fallen at Tampa International Airport, nearly 4 inches below normal.

Last month, Tampa officials reminded residents to abide by once-a-week lawn-watering restrictions and be judicious about using water when showering, cooking and flushing toilets.

The City Council will vote on the new fee in the coming weeks.

Council members interviewed Thursday said they support the idea.

Council member Mary Mulhern has said Tampa residents need to be charged more for water so that they'll think twice about using it.

"Most of the water is going for irrigation," she said. "We need to conserve."

The average water bill for residential users in Tampa is about $13 a month. Water users in Pinellas County pay about $38 a month. Those in St. Petersburg pay about $31 monthly and in Hillsborough County, about $33.

Council member Charlie Miranda on Thursday requested weekly reports from the administration on water usage, the levels of the Hillsborough River reservoir that supplies most of Tampa's drinkable water and enforcement of the city's water restrictions.

"I think we ought to tell the public once a week where we're at, " Miranda said. "We're leaving an era where we were a producer to where we are a consumer."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.