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    Tampa Bay Water gets restrictions in lieu of fines

    Swiftmud could have levied millions of dollars for pumping permit violations. But the board is dictating numerous conditions and has not ruled out fines.

    By JEAN HELLER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2001


    BROOKSVILLE -- Residents and businesses across the Tampa Bay area soon will face tighter water restrictions and higher water rates than ever before.

    The Southwest Florida Water Management District voted Tuesday to allow the region's water utility to continue violating its groundwater pumping permit.

    But Swiftmud attached a laundry list of conditions that range from heightened conservation and enforcement to the justification of new development.

    "We realize that there's no alternative," said Swiftmud board Chairman Ron Johnson, in acknowledging that the city of Tampa's drought-driven desperation for water had caused the pumping violations.

    The Swiftmud board debated the issue for more than five hours, well into the evening, and heard from dozens of public officials and private citizens. Most of them opposed waiving pumping limits on Tampa Bay Water, and thus allowing the utility to avoid fines that could run into the millions of dollars.

    But in the end, the board voted 9-2 to approve an emergency order requiring among other things that the six member governments of Tampa Bay Water reduce water consumption by 5 percent during the year that starts in May.

    While each jurisdiction -- the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey and Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties -- will decide for themselves how to achieve the reductions, the emergency order requires them to identify and curtail non-essential water uses and temporarily waive enforcement of local codes that require lawns and landscaping on new development.

    An earlier version of the order required governments to get that 5 percent reduction by raising the rates they charge the biggest water users, but that was changed before the vote.

    Tampa Bay Water general manager Jerry Maxwell called the emergency order "an enormous undertaking and a recognition of the forces of nature."

    "I'm grateful that they continue to try to make the partnership work," he said.

    Some jurisdictions could have trouble achieving the reductions Swiftmud wants. Tampa for example, significantly cut demand between 1999 and 2000, and officials aren't sure how to squeeze it a lot more.

    "I don't know how we get down another 5 percent," said Water Department Director Dave Tippin. "We have such a large industrial base. How do we tell Pepsi to cut their bottling by 5 percent? We can't."

    Two of the member governments, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey, have achieved 5 percent reductions in the past year, and therefore are off the hook.

    "They're done," said Gene Heath, assistant executive director of Swiftmud. "If they've already achieved the reduction, they're finished."

    St. Petersburg cut demand through pricing and aggressive conservation.

    In 1990, the city charged $1.07 for the first 10,000 gallons of water used. That base rate is now $1.60 for the first 5,600 gallons. The top rate for the largest users has gone from $1.17 per thousand gallons above 20,000 to $3.22 per thousand gallons above 15,000.

    "We also don't put a cap on sewer use," said Bill Johnson, St. Petersburg's utility director. "We have very expensive water."

    The emergency order leaves intact the lightning rod provision that requires member governments to demonstrate there is adequate water to supply all new development that will need new water between now and January 2003. Some in the construction industry and some public officials worry that provision is a back door into a building moratorium, which they fear would destroy the local economy.

    The board declined to say flatly in the emergency order that it would not levy fines against Tampa Bay Water.

    "I don't think penalties are appropriate," said Johnson, the Swiftmud chairman, "but I think it would be irresponsible to take them off the table."

    Although there is no expiration date on the emergency order, Heath acknowledged that even months of heavy rain would not allow Tampa Bay Water to slide back under the pumping permit cap of 158-million gallons a day, averaged over 36 months.

    "We blew by it late last month, and we will not be able to return," Heath said.

    The heart of the problem is the city of Tampa's unanticipated demand for water. Its main source of drinking water, the Hillsborough River, is running at near record lows, forcing the city to buy up to 40-million gallons a day from Tampa Bay Water, instead of its expected demand of 5-million gallons a day. The extra demand pushed Tampa Bay Water into violation of its permit.

    Along with many other provisions, the order also calls for around-the-clock enforcement of lawn watering restrictions, which already limit residents to one day a week.

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