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Baker tightens watering limits

Too much drawing on the reclaimed water system drains the supply to nothing, prompting the mayor to declare an emergency.

By LEONORA LaPETER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- After hearing complaints from customers that the city's reclaimed water system was running dry, Mayor Rick Baker declared an emergency Thursday, restricting use to three days a week.

About 100 customers have called in the last few days complaining they have no pressure in their sprinkler systems hooked to the city's reclaimed water supply. Public Works administrator George Webb said the system was sucked dry Thursday.

Webb said he was out walking his dog in the Old Northeast early Thursday morning and he could see sprinklers being reduced to a small trickle as he walked by.

"I watched it draw back to absolutely nothing," he said.

The reclaimed water system relies on 20-million to 23-million gallons a day of treated wastewater from the city's four sewage plants. But one of the city's largest plants on 54th Avenue S has been producing wastewater with too much fecal coliform in it.

The wastewater is not safe enough to put on lawns, so the city has been injecting the 10-million to 12-million gallons produced there into deep wells for the last four or five days, Webb said.

City employees are working on the problem and expect to have it fixed within a week, but even then Webb said he expects the system to be overdrawn.

"With the experience we're having right now, everyone is using everything we have," he said. "We'll still have pressure problems until we get some relief from the drought. . . . If we're in a position, we'll come forward and say we don't need the restrictions any more."

The city recently opened up its reclaimed water system to new customers. In the last month, it has hooked up 80 or 90 new reclaimed water users and another 119 are waiting to connect to the system.

It was just four weeks ago that the City Council gave the mayor the authority to restrict the use of reclaimed water -- but only in emergencies. Baker wasted little time in determining that the area's prolonged drought qualified.

Residents living on odd-numbered streets who use reclaimed water can now water their lawns only on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday. Those who live on even-numbered streets can do their sprinkling on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. The emergency lasts for 90 days unless Baker decides to rescind the restrictions sooner.

There are no restrictions on when customers can use the reclaimed water. Those who violate the restrictions will receive a warning the first time. Second violations will result in a ticket of up to $55.

Also Thursday, the council directed its attorney to have the city intervene as a party in Hillsborough County's challenge of a final permit to build a desalination plant there. Hillsborough commissioners voting for the challenge said they were concerned about cleanup costs if the plant causes a decline in water quality and marine life near the plant.

St. Petersburg is a member of Tampa Bay Water, which will rely on the plant for water in the future. The state Department of Environmental Protection said 10 days ago it planned to issue the permit, establishing a 14-day window for legal challenges.

The St. Petersburg City Council decided to hold a workshop May 10, but council members feared they would lose their opportunity to intervene in the case if they waited until then. They gave city attorneys the right to intervene to protect their interests should they decide to fight Hillsborough's challenge of the permit.

The challenges would be heard by an administrative law judge from the state Department of Administration.

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