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Tampa balances drought, growth

There's talk of raising water rates, yet Mayor Dick Greco says a ban on new construction would be disastrous.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


TAMPA -- The city is parched -- drier than at any time in its history, the driest place in the country, the mayor says.

The river, the city's major source of drinking water, is near historic lows. To keep the taps flowing, Tampa is spending about $40,000 a day to buy millions of gallons of water from Tampa Bay Water. There's talk of raising rates to pay for it.

The dry spell is expected to continue till the summer rains come.

The dilemma is reflected in the language of city officials.

Some have called it a full-blown crisis, a looming crisis, or, in more sober terms, an unprecedented drought. No one is expected to die of thirst, of course, and while some lawns have turned brown, spigots are hardly spitting air.

Mayor Dick Greco recently met with neighborhood groups to talk about the problem, part of a public education campaign to spread the word.

But he acknowledges that getting residents to cut back when the city is aggressively courting people and businesses is a tough sell.

A moratorium on construction would be an economic disaster, Greco says. Too much of the region's economy is tied to growth. Besides, he points out that the city is using less water than it was a year ago, even though there are 1,897 more water accounts.

That figure is a tricky one, though: An account can mean anything from a single-family home to an apartment complex or an office building. There were 116,849 such accounts by the end of fiscal year 2000, though the city serves about 450,000 water customers, many in unincorporated Hillsborough County. Despite the growth, city customers used 24.5-billion gallons of water by the end of fiscal year 2000, compared with 24.8-billion the year before.

The issue of water conservation in the midst of growth came up last week during a roundtable discussion in Tampa called by Gov. Jeb Bush.

"The biggest conflict I have with the public is that they're fined by governments for watering too much while the same governments are issuing permits for more building," said Sonny Vergara, executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which controls new water permits.

The question won't go away.

"If they're serious about the water situation we're in, then they need to slow down (development) approvals and tell them, 'Come back, hold off,' " said Denise Layne of the Sierra Club.

City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda, the city's representative on Tampa Bay Water, the regional water supplier, said stopping growth does not stop the drought.

"It's a problem that really solves itself," he said of the drought. Tampa Bay Water plans new projects, including a desalination plant, to accommodate the water needs. "But in the interim, the only thing we can really do is ask for conservation," Miranda said.

Tampa was commended during Bush's meeting for its aggressive conservation program. The city has issued more than 4,500 citations for water violations.

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