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District tightens water limits

Forced to act by exceptional drought conditions, Swiftmud cuts by 75 percent the limits imposed last fall.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- With the region parched by a drought so bad that forecasters say it can't get any worse, water regulators Tuesday unexpectedly closed the nozzle even tighter on outdoor watering.

The board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, limited the watering of new lawns and landscaping to 30 days every other day, cutting by 75 percent the limitations imposed just last fall.

The new restrictions, expected to take effect by the end of the week, cover all of Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties and part of Manatee County.

The board acted after the National Weather Service last week downgraded west central Florida's drought condition to "exceptional," the worst possible grade. Coupled with forecasts for drier-than-normal conditions through next summer, the board took drastic action with little opposition.

Hugh Gramling, executive director of the Tampa Bay Wholesale Growers Association, said the agricultural interests he represents could survive with such restrictions as long as the weather remains cool.

"Lawns only take 30 days to set in, although woody plants (such as trees and shrubs) need 60," Gramling said. "When the weather is cool, every other day is okay."

The board promised to re-evaluate the crackdown at its meeting in early February.

The new watering restrictions on new plantings will affect all of Tampa Bay Water's member governments except Tampa, where a virtual no-watering policy is in effect.

Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties as well as New Port Richey now allow 60 consecutive days of watering for new lawns and shrubs, and the city of St. Petersburg allows 30 consecutive days.

The new rule becomes effective as soon as Swiftmud's executive director signs it, probably this week.

Mike McWeeny, Hillsborough County's utility director, said it would save 1.5-million to 1.75-million gallons of water each day in his jurisdiction. "I think it's great," McWeeny added.

But it is a proverbial drop in the bucket when it comes to rescuing the region's largest water utility, Tampa Bay Water, from violating the pumping permit for its 11 regional well fields. A ban on all outdoor watering would save about 14.3-mgd, but to avoid violating its pumping permit next spring, Tampa Bay Water would have to cut withdrawals by 40-mgd.

The utility voted Monday to ask Swiftmud for relief from the pumping limit of 158-mgd, and Tampa Bay Water General Manager Jerry Maxwell carried that presentation to Swiftmud Tuesday.

Board members made no decision Tuesday, but several expressed serious reservations about granting such a request, since the intent of Swiftmud's $183-million investment in new water supply sources for the Pinellas-Pasco-Hillsborough region is to dramatically reduce reliance on ground water.

When the 158-mgd pumping cap was set, Maxwell said, it was assumed that Tampa, which draws its water supply from the Hillsborough River, would never need more than an average of 5-mgd from Tampa Bay Water and would, in fact, be able to sell excess river water to the utility during rainy seasons. But the Hillsborough River is going dry. Not only can Tampa not sell supplies to Tampa Bay Water, it has become dependent on the utility to send it water in amounts spiraling toward 40-mgd, eight times more than the pumping permit envisioned.

"The assumptions were incorrect, and because they were incorrect, we find ourselves in the current situation," Maxwell said. "We're trapped."

Swiftmud board member Ed Chance went so far as to suggest building moratoriums to hold down water use, although Swiftmud does not have the authority to impose them.

"I question why, when we can't take care of current customers, are local governments continuing to approve building permits," Chance said. "If I can't afford to feed and clothe my family, why am I going to a specialist to try to have quadruplets?"

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