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    County wants to toughen water rules

    To curb use, commissioners talk of outdoor watering bans, more water police, higher fines, increased rates and a media blitz.

    By EDIE GROSS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Higher water rates and outright bans on lawn watering and carwashing are not far off if Pinellas County residents do not do more to conserve water, county commissioners all but threatened Tuesday.

    Commissioner Bob Stewart said that such measures would be "draconian," but the county desperately needs to reduce its water use to get through the drought and to avoid fines from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud.

    The agency issued an emergency order on March 20 requiring the six members of Tampa Bay Water -- Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties and the cities of New Port Richey, Tampa and St. Petersburg -- to step up their efforts to conserve water and enforce water restrictions. The order also calls for each government to reduce water consumption by 5 percent.

    On Tuesday, Utilities Director Pick Talley presented commissioners with long-term conservation ideas. But they weren't what commissioners wanted to hear.

    "This is not going far enough," Stewart said. "It's fine to tout the reductions that have been made, but the bottom line is, we're still in a drought and still using more water than is allowable. Most people in Pinellas County, in the Tampa Bay region, just don't get it. They don't understand the severity of the issue."

    Commissioners asked Talley to return next week with a detailed plan for a media blitz that will explain to the public the seriousness of the situation. Forty utilities employees have offered to work overtime to enforce water restrictions round-the-clock, but commissioners told Talley to add more water police to the streets.

    Commissioners also suggested increasing the fines charged to those who violate watering restrictions. Fines currently range from $60 for a second offense (the first offense brings a warning) up to $320 for a sixth violation. Currently, Pasco and Hillsborough counties charge third-time offenders $500.

    Pinellas County commissioners will discuss how much to raise the fines next week.

    "I want some assurance that the steps we're taking will get us below 5 percent," Stewart said.

    Talley said that's impossible.

    "I have no objection; if you want to raise fines, you can. But I can't guarantee you it's going to reduce (water use)," said Talley, who reiterated his claim after the meeting. "The board would like to have an assurance that we'll meet the 5 percent reduction. I don't know how to give them that on a month-to-month basis."

    Swiftmud will compare the county's average water use over May and June of this year with the average use over that same period last year. It will then continue to compare this year's usage with last year's in two-month increments.

    If all goes well, this year's consumption will be 5 percent less than last year's amount.

    Talley told commissioners that adding reclaimed water lines around the county and offering rebates to homeowners who install shallow wells will save 15-million gallons of water a day in Pinellas. But those programs will not be completed for another five years.

    During the past 10 years, Pinellas residents have reduced their water consumption by 28 percent. Nevertheless, the county, which used an average of 69.8-million gallons of water a day in January and February, needs to save water in the short term, commissioners said.

    "We can't just sit back and say, "Everything's hunky-dory,' " said Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd. "We need to be more aggressive in our initiatives."

    The county Utilities Department needs the help of its 120,000 customers to reduce its water use, commissioners said. In addition to residents in unincorporated Pinellas, the county provides water to Largo, Seminole and beach communities from Tierra Verde to Belleair Beach. The county also sells water to the cities of Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs and Oldsmar, which then sell it to their residents.

    Raising water rates for heavy users might encourage customers to conserve, said Commissioner Ken Welch. Customers now pay $2.25 per 1,000 gallons of water used and another $3.10 per 1,000 gallons up to 16,000 gallons for sewer.

    Other commissioners called a rate increase a last resort. But if Pinellas residents do not reduce their water use soon, the future of the county will include brittle lawns, dirty cars and sky-high water bills, commissioners said.

    "We are in a crisis. This is the most serious drought in 100 years and the public doesn't know this, or not all of them," said Commissioner Susan Latvala. "I don't want to punish them . . . but they need to be our partners and be conscientious about every drop they use."

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