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During drought, extremes emerging

While some Pinellas residents conserve every drop they can, their neighbors are defying the law and sprinkling away.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001

While some Pinellas residents conserve every drop they can, their neighbors are defying the law and sprinkling away.

On the east side of Lake Tarpon lives Gini Krahel, a retired businesswoman who rinses off her toothbrush in a Dixie cup and uses the leftover water to irrigate her yard plants.

On the west side of the lake lives Lisa Henke, a self-described "bad guy" who protested Mother Nature's prolonged drought by repeatedly violating the county's watering restrictions in a desperate -- and fairly successful -- attempt to save her lawn.

The drought, called the worst since recordkeeping began in 1915, has brought with it tinder box conditions, thirsty lawns and lowered lake levels throughout the state.

Around Tampa Bay, the situation has also spawned two equally extreme types of people: Those who time their showers, turn off their dishwashers and save every bead of water in an effort to preserve a precious commodity, and those so frustrated by the weather and government's ever-tightening water restrictions that they pledge to continue sprinkling their lawns, fines be damned.

"We all don't look at things the same way," said Pick Talley, Pinellas County utilities director. "There are people you and I both know who stop at every stop sign and every stoplight. And then there are others we know who haven't stopped at one yet.

"We've got all kinds in the community."

Neither group is likely to have a major effect on the county's water supply as long as both remain small, Talley said. But he hopes the conservation crew wins out in the end.

Drowning out the drought

Most of Pinellas County Utilities' 120,000 customers have followed the rules since the county went to a one-day-a-week watering schedule in March 2000.

About 10,350 customers were warned after they watered on the wrong day. Of those, 1,641 repeated the mistake during the past year, according to county records.

Henke repeated it four times, racking up five watering violations and $440 in fines between May and December of last year. She had the third-highest number of violations in the county, according to records.

"I'm the bad guy," said Henke, who lives in Cobb's Landing in Palm Harbor. "The first couple of times, we said to ourselves, 'We'll just go ahead and pay the fine rather than have our lawn be destroyed.' My husband spent thousands of dollars on the yard."

The fines, however, persuaded the couple to reduce their watering to once a week.

"We have reformed our ways," said Henke, whose lawn does not look any worse for it.

The county's top two offenders are homeowners with seven violations each during the past year.

Hugo Perez, who lives on Mimosa Place in East Lake, received $700 in fines between March and November of last year for watering on the wrong day. Four of his violations occurred during one week. Perez could not be reached for comment.

Fellow record-holder Marty Landry lives in Belleair Bluffs on the Intracoastal Waterway. Landry said he decided early on that he was not going to deprive his 1-acre property of water.

"I was illegally watering. No question about it. And I did it on purpose because I've got about $100,000 invested in my lawn, and I figured it was worth paying the 200 bucks (in fines) or whatever it was," he said. "I admit I was breaking the rules, but I'd do it again."

Landry, who was using a shallow well to water his lawn, said he figured if he did not irrigate his property, the well water would just flow into the Intracoastal Waterway anyway.

"I recognize we're in trouble in Florida, and I recognize I was breaking the rules intentionally. I paid the fines willingly," he said. "But I knew I was using water that was going to waste anyway."

Talley agreed that the water would have ended up in the Intracoastal. And because Landry's supply comes from a well, he is not hurting the county's drinking water supply, Talley said.

"But he's still violating the rules," Talley said.

After his last violation in January, Landry learned that he could register his well with the county and be exempt from water restrictions.

Although the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, restricts well users to one day of irrigation a week, members of the county's shallow-well program can water any day of the week as long as they do not do it between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

"I found a way to beat the system," Landry said.

Coping by conserving

Krahel, an East Lake resident, said she has approached the drought with lessons she learned during her childhood in Ohio.

"I was raised on a farm, so I know how precious water is. We haven't used our dishwasher for four months," she said. "We use a dishpan full of water with some Lemon Joy in it and a little disinfectant. That's what we did on the farm. Then we have a pan to rinse (dishes) in.

"I've told people about it, and they've said, 'No kidding,' " Krahel said. "I don't know if other people are doing it, but they might as well try it."

Rather than leave the water running, she rinses her toothbrush in a paper cup -- and if the water is not too "toothpastey," she pours it on the perennials that surround her home. She gave up on annuals because they were not as drought-resistant.

She also showers with a bucket in the tub to catch the extra water, an effort from which her Mexican petunias and tropical sage have benefited.

"They're not as pretty as they used to be, but they're alive and the blooms are pretty okay," Krahel said.

Pastor Bill Cooley of Tims Memorial Presbyterian Church in Lutz vouches for the bucket strategy. His plants also receive any leftover coffee, as well as water used to rinse vegetables.

"I try to remember what shrubs, flowers, plants and trees haven't gotten anything in a while and pour it on them," said Cooley, who lives in Land O'Lakes. "It seems like the azaleas are very happy. And you feel like you're doing something."

Jack Nickerson of Palm Harbor had heard the bucket stories, but he wanted to try something different. So two years ago, he developed his first design for what he now calls the THC Valve, short for thermal-hot-cold valve.

The theory behind his invention goes something like this: The average individual rolls out of bed in the morning, uses the bathroom, flushes the toilet and heads for a wake-up shower. But the water that first flows out of the bathtub faucet is cold, so the average person lets it run for 60 seconds or so to heat it up.

What if it were instantly hot? Nickerson wondered. Then no water would go to waste. Hence, the THC Valve. The T-shaped device hooks to a valve behind the toilet. When someone flushes it, the valve accesses water from the hot water line instead of the usual cold water line to refill the toilet tank.

The first 11/2 gallons of water from the hot water line is usually cold, Nickerson figures. That water flows into the toilet tank instead of down the bathtub drain a few minutes later. And when the bathtub tap is turned on, the water is instantly hot.

Nickerson uses the device in his home and is looking for a manufacturer who might want to market it.

"It's very simple to install," said Nickerson, who works three days a week at Home Depot.

Nickerson recently showed the device to Commissioner Bob Stewart, who said it was innovative. Stewart and the rest of the Pinellas County Commission, under orders from Swiftmud, must develop ways to reduce the county's water use by 5 percent during the next year.

On Tuesday, they will discuss raising fines for those who violate the water restrictions.

"The question is whether we can realize a 5 percent reduction," Stewart said. "Without everybody's individual cooperation, we'll never get there."

Saving water around the house takes only a little creativity, Krahel said: Better to do it now before hardship ensues.

"There are so many little simple ways," she said. "God forbid you turn on the faucet and there's no water."

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