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Swiftmud demurs on water limits

The water regulator opts not to regulate, but board members adopt a resolution urging residents to conserve.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2000

BROOKSVILLE -- Despite the checkerboard nature of new water-use restrictions in the region, the area's water regulator decided Tuesday not to impose uniform new limits on lawn watering, car washing and filling swimming pools.

But the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District said it would take another look at the situation next month and left the door open to erect more barriers to water use or to spread the restrictions beyond the Tampa Bay region.

The decision leaves twice-weekly lawn watering in place for any jurisdiction that has not invoked tougher standards in recent weeks. In Tampa Bay, though, there aren't many of those places left. In Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, new, tougher restrictions are in place in most areas. One exception, the city of St. Petersburg, is expected to act Thursday.

Instead of cracking down, the Swiftmud board passed a resolution asking everyone to take voluntary steps to conserve water, leaving Tampa Bay pretty much on its own to make the hard decisions.

"We may find, based on demand and availability, that we'll ask you for something stronger as we get deeper into the drought," Swiftmud Executive Director Sonny Vergara told the board.

"I would ask that we look at this again next month," said Chairman Ron Johnson, "and if stronger steps are needed then, we'll take them."

The current drought is considered mild to moderate, consisting of 50 percent less rainfall than normal over a two- to four-month period. That level of drought causes crop damage, high fire danger and low drinking water wells. Rainfall over the 16 counties that comprise the Swiftmud region is normally 54 to 55 inches a year. The deficit over the last 12 months is nine inches.

Although groundwater pumping is higher now than at any time in the last 11 years and the Floridan Aquifer levels are down, they are not quite as bad as they were in February 1997, according to Swiftmud staff reports. Even the Hillsborough River Reservoir, although in the worst shape of any reservoir within Swiftmud's boundary, is in slightly better condition than in February of last year. And there is some good news. While the drought is forecast to last well into May, long range forecasts used by Swiftmud predict the rain will start in June and rainfall totals through November will be higher than the 40-inch rainy season average.

In other matters, the board heard Pasco Commissioner Steve Simon make his case to rethink plans for a reservoir in southern Hillsborough. It would supply a treatment plant in Tampa that would produce 60-million gallons of water a day. Simon questioned the structural integrity of the planned 11,000-acre structure and predicted catastrophe should it fail.

It is so big, he said, "This thing is going to be a new reference point on your Global Positioning System."

As he has before, Simon suggested the reservoir be replaced by a second seawater desalination plant, and that the treatment plant be downsized to 20-mgd and fed with water siphoned from the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers and the Tampa Bypass Canal during peak flow periods. Instead of using a reservoir, the water could be pumped into the aquifer and stored.

The plan would drop plans for new well fields in Pasco and northeastern Hillsborough. His plan will be discussed at a special workshop and meeting of Tampa Bay Water on April 10. If Simon fails to persuade fellow members of the TBW board, a contract for the larger treatment plant will be signed.

If Simon was looking for support from Swiftmud, the board gave him none. Aquifer storage and recovery is not a totally reliable science, Vergara said.

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