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Conserve water or pay more

That's the message county commissioners hope to send. They agree to seek higher water rates and hope surrounding counties will follow their lead.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2001


Pasco County commissioners want to impose higher water rates to encourage conservation by county utility customers.

And they hope their example prompts Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to do the same.

"Somebody's got to start," Commission Chairman Steve Simon said. "We'll shame the rest into it."

The commissioners reached consensus on the as-yet-undetermined rate increase during a Thursday meeting with officials of Tampa Bay Water and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud.

Tampa Bay Water, the regional water authority representing member governments in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, tried to sell commissioners on a proposal to increase daily average water consumption from 158-million gallons per day to 164-million gallons.

The city of Tampa, facing drastically low levels in the Hillsborough River, needs the extra water to meet customer demand.

In light of the proposed pumping increase, most of which would be born by ecologically stressed Pasco well fields, commissioners sought ways to reduce consumption.

Mandated once-a-week lawn watering restrictions, although praised for helping cut regional water consumption between 1999 and 2000, aren't enough, commissioners said.

Pasco officials support a regional, self-policing deterrent: higher water rates for customers using perhaps 10,000 or 15,000 gallons a month or more.

In Pasco, water rates start at $1.50 per thousand gallons and increase to $2.23 per thousand gallons once consumption exceeds 15,000 gallons.

Doug Bramlett, Pasco's utilities administrator, said rates could increase by about 50 percent for upper-end users, although he stressed the "magic number" has yet to be worked out. Large users tend to be green lawn aficionados and swimming pool owners.

"We don't want to collect the money," said Bramlett, who expects to spend as long as six months coming up with the proper rates."The whole idea is to prevent over-usage."

Commissioner Ted Schrader, who represents Pasco on the Tampa Bay Water board, started the conversation by noting that people were watering grass despite 4 inches of rain last week. Schrader said a rate increase is the only way to "get their attention."

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand immediately agreed. "The only way to help is to hit them in the purse," she said.

Pasco considered a water conserving rate hike a few years ago, but abandoned the plan when other members of Tampa Bay Water seemed cool to the idea.

Commissioners advised Schrader to announce the county's unilateral action Feb. 26 at the next Tampa Bay Water meeting.

Asked whether Swiftmud could force Tampa Bay Water member governments to adopt steeper water rates, Swiftmud executive director E. D. "Sonny" Vergara said his agency can require conservation rates, but can't set the exact amount.

Vergara said Hernando County experimented with higher water rates for households using more than 15,000 gallons per month and noticed a 25 percent drop in consumption last spring.

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