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Rainfall won't lift water limits

The regional water board's staff will recommend once-a-week watering be the rule indefinitely for the 16 counties.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000

BROOKSVILLE -- Once-a-week watering might be around longer than you thought.

The staff of the Southwest Florida Water Management District will recommend next week that the one-day-a-week watering limitations imposed late in April remain in force indefinitely.

If the Swiftmud board adopts the recommendation when it meets Tuesday, the rule would apply to its entire 16-county region, which includes Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus.

It would bar local jurisdictions from easing general watering limits into the foreseeable future. Depending on how fast groundwater supplies replenish, it's possible the restrictions could be the rule for a year or more.

"Frankly, as far as extending the restrictions, once it starts raining there is no need for people to water their lawns," said Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan.

There is regional agreement that two weeks of scattered rains are not justification for easing restrictions now.

"We think we're going to our board (of county commissioners) next Tuesday with a recommendation to continue once-a-week watering restrictions at least through the end of the summer, but not indefinitely," said Doug Bramlett, Pasco County utilities director. "If rainfall is normal or better, and we have a good recharge in the aquifer, I don't see any reason not to go back to two days a week at some point."

Although local jurisdictions can't invoke watering restrictions less severe than Swiftmud's, they can and have invoked regulations that are more restrictive. In Tampa, for example, there is no exemption from the once-a-week limit for new sod and landscaping. The district permits a 60-day exemption.

The condition of the Floridan Aquifer would be the deciding factor in how long the tough restrictions last. Because only a small percentage of the rain that hits the ground actually trickles into the aquifer -- about 7 percent on average -- its improvement will take a while.

"Surface waters will respond well to rainfall, but the aquifer doesn't," Molligan said. When the aquifer returns to its normal range, Swiftmud's executive director could recommend the board ease the restrictions, he said.

"But what if it hits the low end of the normal range at the end of the rainy season?" Molligan said. "Then we might not be inclined to do that."

Because the aquifer is so low, it will be difficult to recharge adequately in even a normal summer of rainfall, Molligan said. It would appear, therefore, that if the once-a-week restrictions are extended beyond their current June 30 expiration, they could be with us for at least a year.

The old twice-a-week restrictions in some places date back to the 1980s. Swiftmud imposed them districtwide in 1993, and they never went away. But politically it might be difficult to keep the once-a-week limit in place forever, and, to date, no one is talking about trying to do that.

The rainfall of the past two weeks has had one good effect on the aquifer: It has slowed the rate at which residents are draining it.

On June 6, before the rain began, demand on the regional water wholesaler, Tampa Bay Water, peaked at 320.4-million gallons. That is more than twice the daily average allowed by a Swiftmud permit that sets the limit on the amount Tampa Bay Water can take from its 11 well fields. As the rain continued, the decline in use continued, to 211.5-million gallons per day on June 17 and 212.5-million gallons per day on Thursday.

"We've seen almost a 30 percent decline, and all because it's raining a little bit," said Mike Coates, permitting supervisor for TBW. "There have been a few spikes in usage along the way, but overall, demand is down significantly."

The 158-million gallons per day cap is figured on an average daily basis over the course of 36 months. Tampa Bay Water has expressed concerns that heavy demand will cause it to slip into violation of the cap late next March or early April. That would subject the utility to fines of up to $10,000 a day.

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