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Utilities chief says Swiftmud plan poor

The 5-percent cut in water use is hard to verify, Pick Talley says, noting residents have cut average usage by 28 percent since 1990.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2001

The 5-percent cut in water use is hard to verify, Pick Talley says, noting residents have cut average usage by 28 percent since 1990.

An emergency order issued by the Southwest Florida Water Management District to conserve water is unrealistic and likely will have little effect on reducing water use in Pinellas County, Pick Talley, the county's utilities director, said Monday.

The order, issued last month, urges Tampa Bay area utilities to decrease their water consumption by 5 percent. The district, known as Swiftmud, will tabulate water use in May and June to see which municipalities are meeting the mark.

Swiftmud can fine counties that don't reach the goals, but that is unlikely, said Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan.

"I think conservation is a long-term program," Talley said. "I don't think you can dial up a 5-percent reduction. I think that's unrealistic."

Talley has done a five-year analysis on the county's water use and will present his findings today to the County Commission.

The numbers swing and sway wildly from year to year and don't paint a clear picture of whether the county is conserving or wasting water.

"It will be very difficult to determine whether the use actually went down" this year, Talley said.

The reason: variable factors like rainfall and the number of tourists can affect water use.

Residents tend to water their lawns, trees and shrubs less after a downpour. The more tourists the county attracts, the more water used. And both factors fluctuate from year to year.

The emergency order comes as the Tampa Bay area deals with a record drought. Eleven wells in the Bay area are pumping more water than intended, placing lakes and wetlands in danger.

Swiftmud administrators are aware water use fluctuates from month to month and drafted the proposal to look at two-month intervals to soften the blow, Molligan said.

As for that 5-percent decrease, it is a "reasonable goal to shoot for."

Studies show, Molligan said, that water consumption can be decreased between 15 and 45 percent by charging heavy water users higher rates. Under the plan, those who use less water would pay less for the precious resource.

"This works," he said. "But if you have some other way to achieve it, that's fine."

Pinellas already has implemented a similar pricing structure, but Talley is unwilling to increase the prices because a hike would punish residents who are not to blame for water woes. Businesses, for example, may expand their reach and, as a result, consume more water.

Also, residents have already conserved water, he said.

Since 1990, the amount of water usage has declined from 153 gallons a day per person to 110 gallons a day per person, or 28 percent.

"If you're already down in the middle of a drought, how much more can we go down?" Talley said.

Pinellas, like the other bay area water agencies, is complying with the order. The county assembled 47 employees to work overtime and enforce the restrictions in unincorporated Pinellas, Largo, Seminole and beach communities with the exception of Clearwater Beach. Only two full-time workers took on the task before the order was issued.

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