The water enforcers
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001
CLEARWATER -- It's 4:30 a.m. Wednesday on the dark, hushed streets of Glenwood. A white Ford Taurus, windows rolled down, is prowling. A nippy, 56-degree breeze floods the city vehicle. The radio is off.
As he drives through the Leave It to Beaver-esque neighborhood, Eric Wilson scans the shadows of the manicured hedges and flower beds. His partner, Rick DeBord, sits in the back seat listening. He sniffs the air.
"I hear something, but I don't see it," Wilson replies.
"It's probably around the corner here," DeBord says.
Wilson angles the Taurus onto the blackness of Rosemere Drive and glides it around a curve. Then the modern stucco home at 1540 Maple St. comes into view. The house's sprinkler system is on, watering on the wrong weekday.
The same scene is repeated every day the inspectors are on the road, even more often now that the city has stepped up watering enforcement in the past two weeks.
In just under three hours Wednesday, as a Times reporter rode with them, Wilson and DeBord handed out 11 warnings to homes breaking the Tampa Bay area's one-day weekly watering rules.
Clearwater officials say the effort is key to cutting the city's water use by about 750,000 gallons daily -- a demand that the Southwest Florida Water Management District has laid on the city's shoulders as this area faces a severe drought.
But enforcing the rules can be tricky, detailed work.
* * *
As they pause on Maple Street about 4:40 a.m. Wednesday, DeBord flips through a 12-page list of homes already warned about ignoring emergency water restrictions.
"If we find any of these, it's citation time," DeBord says. The citation is mailed certified and comes with a fine of $60. This week, the City Commission will consider increasing that to $100.
DeBord finds that 1540 Maple has never been warned before. So there will be no fine or citation -- only a door-hanger left to remind the homeowner of the proper dates and times for watering.
The homeowner will later explain that she had a new system installed last week. The date and time were misprogrammed. A plumber will confirm that it was his mistake, not hers. But all that matters tonight is that the water is spraying on a day when it should not be.
For the city's records, Wilson snaps a few photos with a digital camera.
"That's my evidence," Wilson says. "It has a time, date and everything. If we ever have to go to court, a picture's worth a thousand words, because they have to explain that picture."
Normally, Wilson and DeBord patrol separately, at all hours of the day, even weekends. Other city employees also patrol, but Wilson and DeBord are the night owls.
"Just put down "You never know' for our schedule," DeBord says.
Although they get along well, the two inspectors seem an odd couple.
At 45, DeBord is the city's water enforcement guru who put together the city's watering restriction program in 1992. He has a bald spot, a gruff voice. Once DeBord's friends made him a sign for his cubicle that said, "Capt. Rick, Water Cop."
Before water enforcement, DeBord worked on a city utility truck fixing water leaks.
"You see, I've been saving water for years," says DeBord, who once turned off the hot water heater on his daughter because she was taking too long of a shower. "I really take to heart the need to conserve water. I practice what I preach."
Wilson, a former Clearwater High defensive tackle, cuts an intimidating figure. But he speaks in a soft, gentle voice. The 29-year-old became an inspector a year ago under DeBord's tutelage.
"You've got to have your water-dog eyes, ears and nose," DeBord says with a laugh.
As their Taurus zigzags slowly along city neighborhoods Wednesday, they demonstrate. Wilson looks for signs of water, shining his heavy, black flashlight across shadowy yards with one hand, the other on the steering wheel.
Sometimes they pause to listen, searching for the soft showering sounds or the oscillating clicks of various sprinkler systems.
Sometimes they smell the air, searching for a tell-tale odor, something like mildew, that suggests watering.
They also drive by homes that neighbors have ratted on.
"I can never catch this guy, gosh," Wilson said, tapping his steering wheel with one hand as the Taurus rolls down Great Brikhill Road. One home on the 1700 block has a yard with wet, lush, green grass and beautiful flower beds -- all signs of recent watering.
"He's always getting complained on," Wilson says. "He often gets up. You'll see him turn on a light. He's probably laughing at me right now. I don't know if I'm going to have to work an all-nighter just to catch that one person."
Neighbors complain for all kinds of reasons, Wilson said.
"To be honest, some are vendettas," Wilson said. "And then you have people who are genuinely concerned about water conservation."
As they talk, they continue scanning the streets. Now the Taurus is in Woodgate III, a western chunk of Countryside, a well-landscaped area that has one of the worst records for water violators.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," DeBord says suddenly.
"Did you hear it?" Wilson asks, tentatively.
"No, I can smell it," DeBord says.
Sure enough, the sprinklers are on at the house at 2231 Banyan Drive, which gets a warning left on its door. It's 5:07 a.m.
"He got me on that one," Wilson says.
A few blocks away, at 2371 Barkwood Pass, DeBord is writing up another warning for the house when the sprinkler system suddenly shuts off at 5:11 a.m.
"He's up!" Wilson says, jogging briskly back to the car after taking a picture. The residents here will later say they did not turn the system off, that Wilson was mistaken.
"It was 5:11 when the system went off," Wilson says. "If they're setting it at 5:11, then that's just extraordinary."
DeBord says that people play all kinds of games.
"People will see you down the street in the daytime," he said. "And you'll see them booking to the garage, and setting the system off."
Then they'll claim they were just testing their system.
Another common trick is to use pesticides to water on non-watering days. That's allowed for a day. But some people leave the small, square flags that indicate a pesticide has just been applied in their yards for weeks -- and keep watering.
Wilson recently caught one person who had a flag in his yard that said "3/21." He called the pesticide company and found out it had applied a chemical to the lawn on March 2. The homeowner had forged a "one" on the faded note to use it again.
"My latest excuse was that the power went off on a house, and the sprinkler came on," Wilson said. "Well, his was the only house going."
People juggle the hours they water, too.
"I'll write a ticket for someone who was watering at 3:30 a.m. Then they think, he was here at 3:30, I'll make the sprinklers go off at 2:30 a.m." DeBord says. "We are always shifting our hours around to catch people like that."
Soon the Taurus is moving under U.S. 19 and through other subdivisions in Countryside, the car heater blazing against the cold.
With an encyclopedic knowledge of the area, Wilson points out most of the two dozen homes he gave warnings to last week for violations. None of their sprinklers is on today. He even recognizes joggers who start appearing about 5:45 a.m.
"Now they're starting to know me," Wilson says. "People weren't speaking to me about two weeks ago. Not even a wave. But now they're starting to smile and say "Hi' because they see me so much."
Most of the people who get warnings this morning will later be apologetic, although not all of them.
"I think that most people, when it's brought to their attention specifically, they're willing to conserve," James G. Jones, who lives on Moore Haven Drive, will say, when called by the Times. He feels silly he forgot to turn off his system, which needs to be reprogrammed.
"I hope (the inspectors) help people understand the days they can water and they can't water," Jones will say. "I hope people pay attention, and I hope I don't get caught again."
The Taurus moves on. At 6 a.m., three houses are busted on Clubhouse Drive.
A man in a bathrobe comes to the door at 2647 Clubhouse and talks to Wilson. He claims he's having problems with his system and Wednesday was the old day for watering in the area. He goes to the garage to turn it off. Nonetheless, he gets a warning.
Another man in a much pricier part of Countryside at 3263 Nicks Place -- a home with a large Floridian-style, wood front porch and a market value of $483,000 in county records -- gives the same excuse. And gets another warning.
"That's going to be the No. 1 excuse," DeBord says. "Their system is set for the wrong day."
Still, DeBord notes, Pinellas County has been under emergency, one-day-a-week watering restrictions now for a year. Wednesdays used to be allowed, but they haven't been for months.
"How hard can it be?" Wilson asks, as they complete their rounds early Wednesday. "The information's been put in water bills. It's in the media."
Now it's 7 a.m. The sun is rising. Kids have appeared at bus stops. And most sprinklers seem to be off.
"Getting kind of dry, isn't it, Eric?" DeBord asks.
"Yeah," Wilson says.
"See, it's working," DeBord says. "Keep it up."
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