tampabay.com

Keeping an eye on the water

Water cheats, beware: Jay DeCaro doesn't think twice before he writes tickets.

By MELANIE AVE
Published May 25, 2007


LARGO - It is just after sunrise on Saturday, the beginning of a glorious weekend in May, when Jay DeCaro climbs into a silver, county-owned Ford Ranger truck.

He rolls down the window. Clear, sunny skies. Perfect, a good day for rested working stiffs to water the crispy lawn or say, wash the car in the driveway.

Enter DeCaro.

He is one of two Pinellas County water enforcement officers checking the illegal sprinkling of lawns for 264 square miles of mostly unincorporated territory, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

He's been called water cop, water Nazi, chicken s--- and a few other names not suitable for a family newspaper.

He's really just a divorced father of one, trying to do a job he considers an honor.

As 80 percent of the state copes with a moderate to extreme drought, officers like DeCaro are keeping renegade water users in check.

Talk centers on water conservation as the Tampa Bay area faces a rainfall shortage ranging between 4 and 7 inches. Meteorologists say the lingering drought will be eased, but not cured, by the annual rainy season that typically begins in late May to mid June.

Water officers have been especially busy since January when the Southwest Florida Water Management District mandated once-a-week watering restrictions for 16 counties through at least July.

Most cities and counties limit watering to a certain day based on addresses and to specific hours, typically early mornings and late evenings.

If you irrigate on the wrong day, or at the wrong time - whether it's potable, pond or well water - you can be fined.

Even those homes with reclaimed water face restrictions. So before you saturate that wilting St. Augustine grass, consider this: A ticket can cost between $100 and $500. To issue a violation, water officers must see the watering.

'Our goal is to inform'

So far this year, Pinellas County has issued 1,162 violations, vs. 1,515 all of last year.

The first violation is considered a warning. The free ride ends with the second ticket, costing $188. One. Eighty. Eight.

"We're really not in this to punish them," says DeCaro, a balding 41-year-old with a goatee and innate ability to detect running water. "Our goal is to inform them."

But water lovers are lucky in Pinellas and St. Petersburg, where warnings precede tickets.

In Hillsborough County, three full-time officers will give you a ticket, and fast. The first violation is $100. The same is true for the city of Tampa, which got serious last year and switched from warnings to tickets for first-time offenders, said Elias Franco, a water department spokesman.

"I think the word is getting out," he said.

Since January, 600 unlucky Tampa waterers have been nabbed and fined by officers like DeCaro, who uses water on an as-needed basis. He brushes his teeth with the water off and does laundry only when the machine is full.

Snitching neighbors

On the perfect Saturday in Largo, DeCaro points his truck south toward the manicured lawns and ranch-style and stuccoed homes of Seminole for a random watering check.

The other officer, Christopher Poole, 28, heads north.

It's a little after 7 a.m.

A clipboard rests on the dash with a list of addresses, a hot sheet of people whose neighbors have snitched on them for improper watering. Even his veterinarian's address is there.

There's also the house on Frederic Drive in Largo "watering almost every morning between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m." And the one on 98th Avenue N in Seminole with "many broken sprinkler heads with water shooting straight up into air."

DeCaro turns right onto Thurston Groves Boulevard. He pivots left, toward a tidy tan house with a vibrant green lawn and a ReMax for sale sign.

Sprinklers whiz in the front yard and near the driveway.

"How do you like that, huh?" DeCaro asks.

It's 7:10 a.m.

Wrong day.

Normal watering times in unincorporated Pinellas County are Monday through Friday, just as Swiftmud recommends. Never Saturday, or Sunday for that matter.

DeCaro stops at the curb, pulls out a clear vial, dips it into the sprinkler water to see if it's from the county or from a well. He adds a chemical.

The water turns yellow. County water.

He grabs a pen from his pocket, writes a ticket and hangs it from the doorknob along, with a copy of the water restrictions.

Back at the office, workers will decide if the violation is the homeowner's first offense or worthy of a fine.

'I'm honored'

By day's end, DeCaro writes 11 violations. Most offenders are oblivious to the restrictions.

One of the last of the day's lawbreakers is John Young on 120th Street N in Seminole.

Young meets DeCaro in the driveway of the stone house as the sprinklers spray away in the shade.

"Did you know we changed residential watering restrictions back in January?" DeCaro asks.

Young shakes his head. He explains how he was cleaning his boat and didn't even realize the sprinklers were on.

"I'm sorry," Young tells DeCaro, who accepts no excuses and writes a ticket. "Sorry about that. I'll pay attention to that from now on."

Before DeCaro drives away, Young switches the sprinklers off.

DeCaro smiles. He hopes what Young says is true. It's a good day when he writes no tickets, DeCaro said.

"I have a 6-year-old, and I want to make sure she and her children have the water they need," he said. "Some people say, 'Don't you have anything better to do?'

"I'm honored to do my job. I'm out here protecting one of the most precious resources in the world."

Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

 

ON THE WEB:

Watering restrictions

Clearwater

myclearwater.com , click on City Government, City Departments, Public Utilities Department, Water Restrictions.

Dunedin

dunedingov.com , click on Public Works, Water, Water Use Restrictions.

Gulfport

ci.gulfport.fl.us, click on Current Water Restrictions.

Hernando County (unincorporated and Brooksville)

hernandocounty.us , click on Water Restrictions.

Hillsborough County (unincorporated)

hillsboroughcounty.org , click on Departments and Agencies, Water Resource Services, Restrictions & Conservation.

Largo

largo.com , click on Departments, Environmental Services, Watering Restrictions.

Pasco County (unincorporated)

pascocountyfl.net, click on Water Restrictions.

Pinellas County (unincorporated areas and Treasure Island, Indian Rocks Beach, Madeira Beach, St. Pete Beach, South Pasadena, Belleair Beach)

pinellascounty.org , click on Departments A-Z, Utilities, Watering Schedule.

Pinellas Park

pinellas-park.com, click on Finance, Utility Billing, Watering Hours.

Plant City

www.ci.plant-city.fl.us, click New Watering Restrictions.

St. Petersburg

stpete.org , select Water Resources Department, click Watering Restrictions.

Tampa

tampagov.net , click Inside City Gov't, Department Home Page Links, Water.

Temple Terrace

templeterrace.com , click on Departments, Public Works, Water.