Swiftmud relaxes watering restrictions
By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times,
BROOKSVILLE -- In a sign that Central Florida's prolonged drought is finally easing, the Southwest Florida Water Management District lifted once-a-week watering restrictions Tuesday.
That means areas such as Citrus and Hernando counties and some cities in Pinellas County can return to lawn watering twice a week. But once-a-week restrictions will remain for most of the Tampa Bay area because of continued evidence that pumping by its water supplier is damaging wetlands.
"We are at the pre-drought conditions," Sonny Vergara, the district's executive director, told his governing board. "And the probability that we will go into another drought as severe as the one we just got out of is, I think, nil. Not nil, but very low."
In a related action, the board agreed to lift an emergency order that required customers of Tampa Bay Water -- a wholesale distributor that supplies most of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties -- to cut water use by 5 percent.
The governing board of the district, commonly known as Swiftmud, voted to return to twice-a-week watering that was in place before the even tougher restrictions went into effect in May 2000.
The 6-3 vote came after a generally positive report about recent rainfall and water levels.
Because of a wetter-than-normal rainy season, most rivers in the district are flowing above median rates. Groundwater levels, for the most part, have climbed into the normal range. Lake levels, though low, are climbing, and the overall outlook is better than at any time since October 1999.
Swiftmud governing board member Watson L. Haynes compared the once-a-week restrictions to unpleasant therapy that is no longer necessary because of the system's improving health.
"We gave (residents) some medicine. They took the medicine. It's now time to withdraw the medicine," Haynes said.
But board member Janet Kovach pointed out that most of the district's lakes and wetlands are at below-normal levels while most of the lawns she sees are still green.
"Is it lawns or wetlands? I know what my personal desires are," she said. "Yes, we've had some rain, but it's obvious were entering the dry season."
Vice chairman Thomas Dabney said that in the southern part of the district, where recharge levels are generally lower than in the central and north, groundwater levels were still just below normal. He advocated maintaining the once-a-week restrictions on much of that part of the district.
He also pointed to a staff report on lifting the restrictions that stated, "groundwater levels have risen into the normal range for the first time since late 1999, but are not demonstrating sustained, full recovery to pre-drought conditions."
The district had no good news at all about the lakes and wetlands near Tampa Bay Water's 11 well fields in Pasco and northwest Hillsborough counties. These levels have barely climbed at all, even after the heavy rains from Tropical Storm Gabrielle.
For that reason, the board did not lift the once-a-week restrictions on areas served by Tampa Bay Water or by utilities that buy water from the consortium. That includes Tampa, St. Petersburg, Pinellas, Pasco and most of Hillsborough counties.
The only utilities in Pinellas County that do not receive water from Tampa Bay Water are Belleair and Dunedin. Also, said Swiftmud records and data manager B.J. Jarvis, local ordinances that mandate once-a-week watering, such as those in Pasco and Hillsborough counties, will still apply, even though Swiftmud's restrictions have been lifted.
Residents of Citrus and Hernando counties will be able to water twice a week as soon as the new rules go into effect, in about a week.
Though Tampa Bay Water's pumping continues to damage wetlands, pumping has declined since earlier this year, when the utility was consistently exceeding the 158-million gallons per day allowed under its district permit.
In March, Swiftmud agreed to allow it to continue exceeding this amount if its customers cut water use by 5 percent from the previous year. This rule was no longer necessary, the board voted, because Tampa Bay Water is no longer violating its permit. When the order was in effect, however, only St. Petersburg consistently met the requirement.
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