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Officials say it's time to live with drought, restrictions

Emergency rules from water regulators signal a change in how the area deals with water.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2001

Emergency rules from water regulators signal a change in how the area deals with water.

Although nobody likes all the requirements, bay area officials settled into a tentative truce Wednesday with a set of tough new restrictions imposed by state water regulators intent on dealing with a two-year drought.

Officials agreed that most residents and businesses would see increases in water rates, feel pressure to accept reclaimed water for irrigation and pay more for violations of water-use restrictions.

Not all new restrictions will develop overnight. But the passage Tuesday by the Southwest Florida Water Management District of a tough set of standards for water conservation appears to have focused attention on issues addressed in the past on an uneven basis across the region.

"We will try to respond to everything they want," Tampa Mayor Dick Greco said. "This is something everyone should listen to."

Within the next 30 days, the emergency order requires the six member governments of Tampa Bay Water -- St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey and Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties -- to adopt emergency plans to deal with critically short water supplies.

These include:

A plan to decrease water consumption by 5 percent compared to last year.

Reduction of all non-essential uses of water.

Waivers of local codes requiring lawns and landscaping on new construction.

Enforcement seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

A review of all new development that will require new water between now and January 2003 to be sure supplies will be available.

Hillsborough County took immediate action Wednesday, banning subdivisions from requiring lawn and landscape watering.

The County Commission also hired two new enforcement personnel, raised fines from $75 to $100 for a first offense and $500 for the third offense and said it would consider water rate increases for the largest commercial and industrial users.

In a largely symbolic act, commissioners ordered fountains in Courthouse Square turned off.

But others were still sorting things out.

"We don't know exactly how they want us to do these things," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, a member of the board of Tampa Bay Water. "The 5 percent decrease in demand is the big thing, and we will get there. We just don't know how yet, although we're going to have to resolve it soon."

Dave Tippin, head of the Tampa Water Department, said Swiftmud is demanding reductions in non-essential uses, but does not define what they are.

"Define non-essential," Tippin said. "It gets real tricky. . . . We were looking for their leadership on this point. I'm disappointed with that."

Tampa is at the heart of the immediate problem. Its principal source of drinking water, the Hillsborough River, has all but dried up, and the city has turned to Tampa Bay Water for new supplies.

Supplying drinking water to Tampa threw the utility into violation of its groundwater pumping permit. Swiftmud then issued the emergency order, which allows the violations to continue, but insisted on conservation cooperation in return.

Code enforcement officers in Pasco County nabbed about 100 watering scofflaws last week, the highest seven-day total ever. Later this spring, Pasco plans to double fines for illegal watering, up to $60.

"They're out at 2 or 3 in the morning," said Doug Bramlett, Pasco's utility chief. "We're getting a lot of calls from neighbors turning in people who are abusing the system."

Pasco also plans to raise water rates, targeting residential customers who use as little as 15,000 gallons a month. A consultant will announce in about 90 days what the increases should be.

Tampa already has increased fines for water-use violations, and Greco said Tampa also would impose higher rates but didn't offer specifics Wednesday. St. Petersburg has already done so but will consider raising them again next year.

St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer, who has served for years on the TBW board, said reclaimed water would be a large part of the region's future.

"That's what saved us," Fischer said. "Pinellas is starting a major reclaimed program out along the beaches. Tampa is just starting. . . . There's a lot of water available. It's a matter of spending the money to put reclaimed water where it can relieve the strain on drinking water supplies."

Although Pasco officials still express concern that the requirement to match development with available water is a move toward a building moratorium, TBW officials said they are already handling that.

Each year, the utility plans its water production based on its members' estimates of their needs. Growth is built into those estimates. When new development needs the water, it is there.

And since regional growth of 1.5 percent has been below earlier estimates of 2.5 percent, growth has not put unexpected pressure on water supplies.

"You have to take the attitude that this (emergency order) has passed," Latvala said. "Now we have to learn how to make lemonade. We are going to have to learn to use less and conserve more, and we're going to be doing that forever."

- Staff writers James Thorner, Christopher Goffard and Bill Varian contributed to this report.

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