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    Water users: No one-size-fits-all fixes

    Pasco is doubling fines. Pinellas wants no changes. The Tampa Bay Water members want to keep some autonomy.

    By LISA GREENE, BILL VARIAN and JAMES THORNER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2001


    Tampa Bay area governments are having decidedly different reactions to a call from water regulators for tough new conservation measures and higher rates for the greediest water users.

    Pinellas County opposes the plan, saying it could prime the pump for a legal battle.

    "Let's not let it be said that the end of the water wars collapsed during the first drought," the county wrote in a Thursday letter to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which has proposed the stringent new rules. They would come in exchange for allowing Tampa Bay Water, the region's water utility, to avoid huge fines for pumping more groundwater than its permits allow.

    Pasco County, on the other hand, is planning to double fines for lawn watering violators and enact punitive rates for the biggest water users.

    Hillsborough County appears to fall somewhere in between. Officials there wrote Swiftmud Thursday saying they support a requirement to achieve a 5 percent reduction in water use, but oppose a mandatory rate increase on their customers, who already pay the steepest water bills in the area.

    "... We think each member should be responsible for determining the specific actions to be taken," wrote County Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank.

    Resolution could come Tuesday, when Swiftmud is scheduled to debate the proposed emergency order. Along with higher rates, its provisions include forcing local governments to justify new developments that will use water, enforcing watering restrictions around the clock and waiving landscaping requirements that lead to more water use.

    Pinellas County says Swiftmud should simply allow Tampa Bay Water to exceed the pumping limits.

    To do otherwise is to punish citizens for a problem they didn't cause, said Pinellas Commissioner Susan Latvala.

    "Even with growth, we're using less water as a region than we were before," she said. "People are aware of the drought. They're being conservation-minded."

    Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan dismissed Pinellas' suggestion that the order could endanger regional water cooperation. This is a short-term emergency, not a long-term change to water agreements, he said.

    The order is needed to reduce water use, Molligan said. Pumping too much water from the ground dries up wetlands and lakes.

    The strongest calls for less pumping have come from Pasco, the source of most of the groundwater.

    County officials there said first-time offenders now will pay between $50 and $80 for illegal watering, up from the current $30. In addition, neighborhood checks for violators sprinkling under cover of darkness will begin as early as 4 a.m.

    Pasco commissioners also have hired a consultant to help set punitive water rates for customers using perhaps as little as 10,000 gallons or 15,000 gallons per month.

    Tampa Bay is facing the worst drought since record-keeping began some 85 years ago. Tampa's normal source of water, the Hillsborough River, is so low that the city has turned to Tampa Bay Water for as many as 40-million gallons a day instead of its usual 5-million. Last month, that sent Tampa Bay Water over the pumping limit of 158-million mgd that Swiftmud allows.

    Pinellas County said Swiftmud should stop counting the extra water for Tampa as part of the utility's limit.

    County officials also questioned whether Swiftmud has the authority to tell local governments what ordinances to pass, as it did in the proposed order.

    "You'd like to think a commissioner can vote one way or another on an ordinance," said Pick Talley, county utilities director.

    But Molligan said Swiftmud has that authority and that the order would end as soon as the drought ends.

    Representatives of Tampa Bay Water member governments met with Swiftmud Friday to voice their concerns about the draft order. Each expressed reservations about a one-size-fits-all approach, said Michael McWeeny, director of the Hillsborough County Water Department.

    "Each of the member governments has a slightly different situation, and the opportunities to reduce consumption are a little different," McWeeny said. "Each of the members needs to adopt its own system. That seemed to be the consensus."

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