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Despite drought, 35 Tampa Bay homeowners used more than 1 million gallons of water last year

Don Wallace is known for many things in Tampa: RV king. Millionaire philanthropist. Owner of the biggest house on the city's most prestigious street.

Now he has a new distinction: biggest water user in the Tampa Bay area.

Wallace used more than 6 million gallons of water at his Bayshore Boulevard mansion last year, enough to fill the average backyard swimming pool every day for a year.

Wallace's estate is one of at least 35 homes across the region that used at least 1 million gallons of water last year, even as local officials urged restraint during a continuing three-year drought.

Other local million-gallon luminaries include Tampa Bay Buccaneers co-chairman Bryan Glazer, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and professional wrestler John Cena. More than 53 million gallons of water was consumed by the 35 biggest users.

"That's surprising to hear," said Robyn Felix, spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "That's a large amount of water. This is an extreme water shortage right now, and we need everyone to do their part."

The water district, known as Swiftmud, classifies high-end users as those who consume more than 180,000 gallons of water a year.

Records show 35 homes in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties used more than five times that amount. Almost half of them are in Tampa. None is in St. Petersburg.

Don and Erika Wallace's 2008 usage is more than 66 times that of the average family's 7,500 gallons a month. The second-biggest water consumer, Westshore developer and Republican fundraiser Al Austin, used about 3.5 million gallons. Cena used 2 million gallons at his Land O'Lakes mansion, while Glazer and Steinbrenner used more than 1.2 million each.

A Belleair Shore home belonging to Magdy Osman used nearly 1.9 million gallons, the most in Pinellas County.

Water representatives across the bay area said the use, while higher than average, was acceptable.

"These are our customers. And they're not doing anything illegal," said Michelle Van Dyke, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Water Resource Services. "They're buying a product that they choose to use, and they're paying a higher premium for that larger consumption."

Just because they're "high irrigators doesn't automatically translate into they're breaking the rules," Tampa Water Department director Brad Baird said.

The Wallaces' $8.1 million mansion sparkles with the bay's reflection. The 13,000-square-foot home features 12 1/2 bathrooms and at least one pool and hot tub, according to Hillsborough property records.

A family spokesman said the Wallaces chose underground irrigation, low-flow toilets and water-efficient washing machines to minimize water use. Possible malfunctions could be to blame, they said.

"The Wallaces believe they continue to have a water meter reading problem; and their irrigation company has been working to determine if any 'pipe leaks' are occurring within their irrigation system," the spokesman said in a statement. "When found, the repairs have been made."

Tampa officials said a leak could be to blame for the family's high use but said the city's water meters are faultless.

"It's physically impossible for a meter to read faster than the amount of water that's traveling through," Baird said. "If there's a spike in their bill, the water had to go somewhere."

Other homeowners expressed similar surprise. John Theofilos, who with his wife and two children lives in a $2.8-million Bayshore home, said resodding demanded a lot of irrigation. They have since discontinued watering, he said, leaving the family's yard to go to "hell in a handbasket."

Local officials have noted the high use.

Tampa officials called heavy users and encouraged them to switch to reclaimed water. (It's unavailable in Wallace's area.) St. Petersburg patrols have begun ticketing restriction violators at night. And the Tampa City Council will discuss today the possibility of banning sprinkler use.

But some point to encouraging numbers that show the average bay area user doesn't overwater.

"We're doing real good here," said Hillsborough County water team director Bart Weiss. "I know we all need to do better."

Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda, a longtime advocate of water conservation, said the stakes are high for everyone.

"We're either going to put it in the lawn or we're going to drink it," Miranda said. "The public in the end is going to be the one who decides."

Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Despite drought, 35 Tampa Bay homeowners used more than 1 million gallons of water last year 03/18/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 20, 2009 3:51pm]
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