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Region's many watering rules sow confusion

The flood of locally enacted restrictions has area officials asking why the district regulator, Swiftmud, didn't act first.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2000

Dale Sanders is expecting a tough morning.

Sanders, who runs a Zephyrhills mobile home park, anticipates being peppered with questions at a residents meeting today about whether Pasco County's new watering restrictions affect the park.

"It is so confusing," Sanders complained. "Some cities you water after 5, some after 6, some after 7 at night, some before 7 or 8 or 9 in the morning. Our residents take great pride in their lawns and their cars, and I know they're going to have tons of questions . . . because nobody can understand all this."

In response to a drought more than a year old, the region has suddenly erupted in a flurry of locally enacted watering restrictions so different they are baffling even for the officials who put them in place.

"It is very confusing, just in Pinellas County alone, with the different days, different hours, different restrictions," Pinellas Commissioner Bob Stewart said Wednesday. "How are people supposed to sort it out?"

Stewart thinks water regulators should have taken the lead. Six years ago, during the last serious drought, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, imposed watering restrictions on the tri-county area that still stand today. This time, with conditions much worse, Swiftmud hasn't even weighed in and can't consider the situation until its regular monthly meeting Tuesday.

"If the district had taken the initiative, we would have had one uniform set of rules that certainly would have been easier for the general public," said Stewart, who also is a member of the board of Tampa Bay Water, the region's water utility. "It seems to me that part of the responsibility of the district is determining the degree of urgency.

"I think it's strange that the district has been so quiet and non-instructive on something that we at the local level consider a matter of crisis proportions."

Absent Swiftmud action, Stewart said he wished the six member governments of Tampa Bay Water -- Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey -- had reached agreement on a standardized set of restrictions if only to eliminate confusion.

As it is now, differences abound. Pasco County exempts new lawns and landscaping from restrictions for 30 days. Tampa doesn't. In most Pinellas communities, residents may water between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. In Pasco, though, it is between 5 p.m. and 9 a.m. And more communities are joining in. New Port Richey adopted Pasco's regulations Tuesday night. Hernando County is considering tightening watering rules and adding a trash-burning ban.

Michael Molligan, spokesman for Swiftmud at district headquarters in Brooksville, said the agency left the decisionmaking up to local governments "because they see their supplies better than we do. We look at things on a regional basis."

Water consumption in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties has been pushing 280-million gallons a day, nearly 40-million gallons a day greater than normal. There has been no rain and none is forecast.

While the district governing board is scheduled to discuss conditions on Tuesday, Swiftmud staff thus far is not making a recommendation on watering restrictions and there is no assurance the board will invoke any.

One reason the board might act, Molligan said, is the time of year.

"It's the middle of March, and the rainy season doesn't usually begin until the middle of June," Molligan said. "We're three months away, looking at three more months of little or no rain. If we were where we are now and it was May, we might not be looking at taking any action. But three months is a long time."

In 1994, the situation was much different, with Swiftmud pushing restrictions and local governments resisting. The district issued two orders restricting water use. Both were challenged in court by St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, the predecessor to Tampa Bay Water. The legal actions postponed implementation of the restrictions until the challenges were resolved.

So the district issued an emergency order, which would remain in place unless a judge lifted it. It, too, was challenged, but then the rain began and the matter became moot.

But this time around, David Bracciano, Tampa Bay Water's resource conservation coordinator, is drafting a letter that will be sent to Swiftmud over the signature of St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer, requesting regional watering restrictions. Fischer is chairman of the TBW board.

Bracciano said the district has been aware of the impending crisis since last year.

"The district asked that we start talking about this last December, and we have been meeting monthly," he said. "Representatives of our member governments have been going up and reporting on conditions. So there have been discussions."

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