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Hiss! Sprinkler spies watch and turn in their neighbors

Anxiety over shortages, a sense of duty and envy drive neighbors to report water scofflaws.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 2000


Andres Vargas watered his lush green grass and perky plants well before dawn one recent Friday while most of his South Tampa neighbors slept.

photo
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
James Jugo called Tampa's hotline four times between 8:06 p.m. and 9:39 p.m. on May 11 to report a neighbor, who counters that Jugo waters every day. He denies it.
Most, but not all. A few hours later, a woman left an anonymous message on the city's water violation hotline with Vargas' address, the time his sprinklers went off and the observation that his yard is the only healthy one on the block.

City water cops haven't caught Vargas yet, but they're watching. He suspects some jealous neighbor with a sparse, brown lawn turned him in.

"I guess they're upset about not watering their lawns," Vargas says. "But they didn't even water when they could (twice a week)."

After two months of tough watering restrictions, large numbers of people across the Tampa Bay area are reporting violators to their local governments.

More than 350 calls a day on average pour into water violation hotlines, code enforcement and utility departments and local police offices, say city and county officials throughout a five-county area from Pinellas to Citrus counties.

The drought is turning neighbor against neighbor.

In Hernando County, retirees walked the Seven Hills Links subdivision Monday jotting down addresses of homes with sprinklers running illegally. In Holiday, a man reported his neighbor had hooked up a sprinkler system to suck water from the pool, which he then filled legally.

In northwest Hillsborough, Mike Davison rolled out of bed one night last week to the hissing of a neighbor's sprinklers. He marched next door, reached into the in-ground water meter and shut off the value to the sprinklers.

"I'm a little irritated," Davidson said in a recorded message to the Hillsborough County hotline. "If we need to save water, we need to save water."

Apparently, he has a lot of company.

So many water violation calls flooded offices of Hernando County commissioners that the county recently set up a recorded hotline. When 120 calls filled St. Petersburg's message line last weekend, people called in water scofflaws on the mayor's action line.

"There is quite a bit of anxiety out there," said Joan Bradshaw, the city's water conservation coordinator. "They're trying to do their bit, and their neighbors aren't following suit."

Nancy Rich of St. Petersburg considers it a civic duty to report violators.

She drops off a grandchild at Tyrone Elementary School on weekday mornings and takes down addresses of homes that are watering illegally on the way to a restaurant for breakfast. On Wednesday, she called in seven addresses, including two she had reported earlier.

"I normally wouldn't turn people in," Rich said. "But it's so unfair. A majority of people are abiding by the rules. It just gets me so aggravated."

Others admit their motives aren't entirely pure.

James Jugo called Tampa's hotline four times between 8:06 p.m. and 9:39 p.m. on May 11 to report a neighbor across W Lawn Avenue. His last message ended with palpable sarcasm: "Please call back if you don't enforce the law."

But what really ticked him off was that neighbor Nancy Baldwin turned in his big yellow dog named Bear two months ago for running around the neighborhood without a license.

An animal control officer wrote Jugo a $460 ticket but said a judge would dismiss the case if Baldwin didn't show up to testify. She did show up.

"What goes around comes around," Jugo said.

Baldwin pointed to the patches of grass on her sandy front lawn as proof that she didn't water except on Tuesdays, her legal day. "He does it every night," she said. "Obviously, what he's done is feuding, and it gets to this. Absolutely ridiculous."

Hillsborough County is receiving about 100 water violation calls a day, the most of any government in the Tampa Bay area.

The number spiked last week after county commissioners changed legal watering days from Sundays and Tuesdays to a weekday-only schedule, said John Fischer, water department spokesman.

In Citrus County, which changed to a similar schedule last week, emergency operators and the Sheriff's Office are fielding more than 80 calls daily, said Gail Tierney, a sheriff's spokeswoman.

Although their daily numbers aren't as high, the phone lines in St. Petersburg (40 calls), Tampa (46), Pinellas County (20-25), Hernando County (35) and Pasco County (20-25) are plenty busy.

But the huge volume of calls isn't resulting in a lot of violators being cited, local officials say.

That's because water cops must observe illegal watering to write a ticket and usually aren't dispatched immediately to check out reports.

St. Petersburg and Tampa, as well as Hillsborough and Hernando counties, use recorded hotlines, so calls sometimes aren't written down for a day or more. Water cops check out suspect addresses as part of their routine patrols.

"It's not like calling the police department," said India Williams, consumer affairs manager for the Tampa Water Department.

Most cities and counties dispatch code enforcement officers or utility workers. In Citrus County, Safety Harbor and Temple Terrace, deputies or police officers do respond but only as more serious calls allow.

"These are not high-priority calls," said Tierney. "We are sending deputies, but we're not saying they'll be out in five minutes."

Wayne LaFave of St. Petersburg found that out recently when he called the city hotline to report his girlfriend's landlord turned on the sprinklers after she refused to water more than once a week.

"We wanted him to get nailed while he turned the water on," he said. "I guess it's just hit or miss (catching) people watering illegally."

-- Times staff writers David Karp and Jeff Solochek contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384, or at huettel@sptimes.com.

To file a complaint

Residents can report a water violation by calling one of these numbers.

Tampa: (813) 274-8036

Hillsborough County: (813) 224-8993

Temple Terrace: (813) 989-7080

Pinellas County: (727) 464-4714

St. Petersburg: (727) 892-5300

Oldsmar: (813) 855-4693

Safety Harbor: (727) 582-6200

Dunedin: (727) 738-1840

Clearwater: (727) 562-4720

Belleair: (727) 588-3794

Pasco County: (727) 847-8110

Hernando County: (352) 754-4056 weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; (352) 754-4005 (Spring Hill, Brooksville); (352) 520-4014 (Ridge Manor) after hours

Citrus County: (352) 726-1121

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