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Reclaimed water won't be rationed

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- To Mayor David Fischer, it's a simple solution:

Restrict reclaimed water customers to three sprinkling days a week. Spread out demand so that people have enough to water their lawns during peak hours when the system currently runs dry.

After nearly two hours Thursday of fretting, stewing and analyzing, three City Council members did not agree with Fischer or five of their colleagues. Reclaimed water use will remain unrestricted in the city.

"It's a no-brainer," Fischer said after the council vote. "Apparently some no-brains kicked in."

It was the second time the council had rejected the restrictions. In March, it decided the city's administration had not proved the existence of a reclaimed water shortage.

The shortage was borne out in the past couple of weeks as lawn sprinklers sputtered and pressure in the reclaimed water system at times fell to zero.

So council member Bea Griswold proposed a temporary emergency ordinance that would have assigned each of the city's 10,000 reclaimed water customers three watering days a week, based on each resident's address.

But while a majority of the eight council members agreed, the new rules needed six votes to pass as an emergency ordinance. Council members Kathleen Ford, Bill Foster and chairman Larry Williams voted no.

Foster said he first wants to see whether putting one of the city's treatment plants back on line after repairs this week will fix the problem.

The Albert Whitted plant's output is being flushed underground instead of being distributed through the system because the water is not clean enough. Utilities director Bill Johnson said Thursday that he could bring the plant back on line in a few days.

Ford said she voted no because the mayor should fix the problem himself. Fischer said he could set restrictions, but he and his staff cannot cite people who disobey them with an ordinance violation if the council has not passed an ordinance.

Williams wasn't sure rationing would help, so he voted no. Griswold wasn't sure either, but she wanted to give it a shot.

"It's better to get a guaranteed source of water three days a week than not know whether you'll have it any day of the week," she said.

There was a long discussion about whether rationing would violate the city's contract with reclaimed water customers, which some felt guarantees an uninterrupted supply of reclaimed water.

Council member Jay Lasita was amazed at such lawyering.

"The supply has been interrupted. It has been interrupted," he said. "For all the legalese, that's it. If I were a reclaimed water customer, I would much rather have 50 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing."

City attorney John Wolfe agreed. Whether the contract says the city will provide unlimited water or not, "we're not doing it," he said. "Right now we're not doing it because we can't deliver it because of the pressure."

He said the city would act in better faith and avoid damage to people's plants and lawns by rationing to try to provide at least some use of the system to every customer.

"The thing that bothers me is that it's kind of a secondary problem," Williams said before voting no. "It's very frustrating that we're going to ask people to cut back. What we've really done is fumble the ball quite excessively here lately."

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