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    Swiftmud drafts water ultimatum

    The emergency order would save Tampa Bay Water from severe fines for exceeding pumping limits.

    By JEAN HELLER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


    The Tampa Bay region could face the toughest -- and potentially the most expensive -- program of water conservation in its history if water regulators adopt a proposed emergency order later this month.

    The draft order, released late Friday by the Southwest Florida Water Management District would, among many other things:

    Require local governments to set new, higher residential and commercial water rates. The goal would be to penalize heavy consumption with rates so stiff they would force a 5 percent reduction in water use.

    Require local governments to determine how much potable water new developments would require and prove those needs could be met.

    Require jurisdictions to consider taking water from other sources, such as wells that serve Busch Gardens and some of Carrollwood, and treat some lower quality water with portable reverse osmosis plants.

    Waive requirements tying lawns and landscaping to certificates of occupancy for new buildings.

    Enforce watering restrictions on a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week basis.

    The draft order, which comes in the midst of the worst drought in the more than 85 years that records have been kept, is a sweeping, 17-page statement of Swiftmud's angst over the region's failure to stay within the limits of its groundwater pumping permit.

    It is Swiftmud's laundry list of demands for tough decisions and sacrifice in return for allowing the permit violations in the Tampa Bay area to continue without penalty for the duration of the drought.

    The draft order was released so late Friday that no one from Tampa Bay Water, the region's water utility, had the opportunity to review it and respond, nor had anyone seen it from TBW's six member governments, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey.

    It will be presented to the Swiftmud board on March 20. The proposals would affect only those communities served by Tampa Bay Water, not the entire district.

    The order was necessitated because the drought basically eliminated the Hillsborough River as Tampa's principal water source. Rather than the expected water demand by the city on TBW of an annual average 5-million gallons a day, the demand has been as high as 40-million gallons a day.

    TBW's permit caps pumping at 158-mgd per day averaged over 36 months. TBW exceeded that limit late last month. Without the emergency order, the utility potentially could be liable for millions of dollars in fines.

    Arguably, the most eye-catching aspect of the draft order is the stipulation for review of new development.

    Michael Molligan, spokesman for Swiftmud, emphasized that this was not the precursor of a moratorium on building, something many area residents have asked for.

    "We're telling the member governments that they must identify where the demand will be and demonstrate where the water will come from," Molligan said. "I don't know what the next step would be if they can't do that."

    The process would cover each new development previously approved and each new development under consideration between March 2001 and January 2003.

    Swiftmud also wants local governments to make the heaviest water users pay through the nose.

    "To some extent, all the member governments have water-conservation rate structures. We're asking them to make them steeper," Molligan said. "The water rate increases would cover all classes of users, but we would be very careful to be sure it didn't adversely impact lower-income people."

    Molligan said he wasn't sure why the Swiftmud staff specifically chose Busch Gardens and Carrollwood's wells as possible new water sources for TBW. The amusement park complex and the Carrollwood wells in question have their own Swiftmud permits, and it also isn't clear what legal right TBW would have to any of that water.

    But the proposal for the use of portable reverse osmosis plants to make lower-quality water drinkable is precisely in line with Gov. Jeb Bush's proposal to make the permitting of such facilities faster and easier.

    The board of Tampa Bay Water will have the opportunity to review and discuss the draft emergency order at its own meeting on March 19, one day before Swiftmud is expected to take action.

    Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, chairwoman of the TBW board, could not be reached for comment Friday night.

    Proposed emergency measures

    Among the conservation measures proposed in an emergency order to be considered by the Southwest Florida Water Management District:

    Require local governments to set higher water rates for heavy users.

    Require governments to prove they could meet the potable water needs of new developments.

    Waive requirements tying lawns and landscaping to certificates of occupancy for new buildings.

    Enforce watering restrictions 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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