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Drowned by drought

Lakes levels are low, and watering restrictions remain in effect as the dry season settles in.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2000


It has been a year for the water record books.

Driest months. Highest demands. Lowest levels in lakes and rivers.

And it's not over yet.

Last month was the third-driest October on record, National Weather Service meteorologist Karl Loeper said. Lake levels already are 2 feet below levels normally seen in May, the traditional end of the dry season.

And, Loeper said, "We're looking at a warmer than normal winter with drier than normal conditions continuing into the spring."

As the dry season settles in, some local water officials have started catching more residents and businesses skirting the tough watering restrictions.

Hillsborough County sent out 281 citations by registered mail in September and August but wrote "in excess of 400" last month, county water conservation manager Norm Davis said. In Tampa, inspectors signed 678 citations, mostly for violations of allotted watering days or hours. That's more than twice the combined figure for the prior two months.

The drought shows no sign of letting up, according to official weather watchers. While owners of browning lawns may not believe summer showers mirrored the historical average of 30 inches, the rainfall did not help the region compensate for two years of below-average precipitation.

It all means there's little chance that once-a-week watering rules, along with limited watering hours, will change any time soon. Until aquifer levels reach the low end of the normal range, the Southwest Florida Water Management District's governing board will not consider easing the restrictions, spokesman Mike Molligan said.

"We can say that it's going to take significantly above-average rainfall to get into a normal range," he said. "If we have just average rainfall for this dry season, next spring will likely be worse that last season."

Despite the drought's regional stranglehold, Hillsborough and Tampa are handing out more fines than their neighbors, records show.

"We're still being very vigilant," said India Williams, consumer affairs manager for the Tampa Water Department. "We're catching them. There are people out there who aren't complying that we don't see."

Pinellas County in October counted 216 violations. It only issues citations to repeat offenders, of whom there were 63 in October.

Those numbers were up from September, when 139 violations were noted and 34 people were cited. But compliance has improved dramatically since May, when the county discovered 3,930 violations and handed out 1,486 citations.

The county also has reduced the size of its enforcement team since March, when it offered utilities employees overtime pay to patrol neighborhoods, said customer services director Tim Wiley.

"It's not as bad as it was during April and May," he said. "As the day gets shorter and the weather gets cooler, people don't water as much."

But other governments are much more reluctant to issue citations.

For example, Clearwater in September and August issued 45 warnings in the form of informational door hangers, letters or even phone calls and a personal visit. But city employees wrote no citations.

Pasco, Hernando and Citrus county authorities also use a softer approach.

Pasco issued 23 warnings over the past two months without citations. During the same period, when Tampa and Hillsborough handed out more than 1,500 citations, Hernando code enforcement issued 93 warnings and one citation. Citrus wrote no tickets.

Few residents deny the restrictions are a necessary response to the drought. Getting fined still hurts, however.

After winning at the slot machines in Las Vegas recently, Patricia Lomineck never bet she would be turning over some of that money in fines.

While her legal lawn watering day is Thursday, she thinks her timer malfunctioned last month. As it ran one Friday, a Hillsborough inspector spotted the infraction and issued a citation -- at 5:10 a.m.

Lomineck, who reset her timer, just sent her check in.

"I try really hard not to break the law," she said. "Seventy-five dollars is a lot of money though. And I just got back from Vegas,and I could use it."

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