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During drought, extremes emerge

Some Pinellas residents conserve every drop they can. Others, however, defy water restrictions for the sake of their lawns.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2001

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

On the west side lives Lisa Henke, a self-described "bad guy" who protested Mother Nature's prolonged drought by repeatedly violating Pinellas County's watering restrictions in an attempt to save her lawn.

The drought, called the worst since recordkeeping began in 1915, has brought with it tinderbox 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, and those so frustrated by the weather and government's ever-tightening water restrictions that they 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."

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.

Pinellas County provides water to residents of the unincorporated area, the cities of Largo and 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.

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

Hugo Perez, who lives 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. He 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 the well water would flow into the Intracoastal Waterway 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.

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."

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 that has helped her Mexican petunias and tropical sage.

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