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Developer Al Austin defends his water use: 'I'm doing the right thing'

Al Austin, right, and Sean Haines, owner of Commercial Landscape and Design, talk about Austin’s water usage at his home in Tampa. Austin was among dozens of bay area homeowners to use more than 1 million gallons of water last year.

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

Al Austin, right, and Sean Haines, owner of Commercial Landscape and Design, talk about Austin’s water usage at his home in Tampa. Austin was among dozens of bay area homeowners to use more than 1 million gallons of water last year.

CLARIFICATION: Westshore developer and Republican Party fundraiser Al Austin has been a proponent of expanding the availability of reclaimed water, but it is not available on his Tampa property. Austin uses a well to help irrigate his six-acre property and requires city water only on half his lot. A story Tuesday was unclear on these points.

Westshore developer and Republican Party fundraiser Al Austin stared at the lush acreage that fronts his Tampa estate. The bluegill pond, the crape myrtles, the field of St. Augustine grass.

These, Austin says, have made him a public enemy.

"Joe Six-Pack sees a guy living in a big house using a lot of water and thinks, 'Must be a bad guy,' " Austin said, a fleet of lawn mowers drowning out his voice.

Although he used more water last year than nearly everyone across the Tampa Bay area, he says he's not an abuser, that he's operating within the rules and trying to keep his property in respectable shape.

"I'm doing the right thing in my community. I do things that are good for the environment," he said. "I'm just providing water to keep a nice piece of property, which I think all my neighbors appreciate."

Last year, dozens of Tampa Bay homeowners such as Austin, RV king Don Wallace and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner each used more than a million gallons of water. Then the fountains dried and the thermostats climbed, and the sprinklers went silent. Millions of gallons were saved.

Austin says his need remains.

"I'm paying for it. I'm abiding by restrictions. If I didn't have that 6 acres, there would be 25 houses there using more than I do," Austin said, though his use of 3.5 million gallons last year could have sated about 40 average homes. "Are you going to say because we have parks that use a lot of water, that's a waste?"

With talk of drought surcharges, mandatory reclaimed-water hookups and the most restrictive watering rules in history, many Tampa Bay residents are cutting back.

Austin's gated 6-acre estate has used about half a million gallons so far this year, adding to the nearly 8 million gallons used already by other big homes, utility bills show.

But that may be dwindling, he said. His sprinklers are now dormant, in keeping with the city's watering restrictions. Two 4,000-gallon tankers soaked his yard with reclaimed water last week.

Officials say others are in synch. Tampa Bay Water reports savings of more than 56 million gallons a week since automatic irrigation was banned. Restrictions implemented earlier this month decreased usage by about 21 million gallons per day compared with last year, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud.

Typically, about 2 percent of residential users consume up to 15 percent of the water supply, Swiftmud officials say. Austin already has plunked down $2,500 for this year's water bills.

"If you think I'm happy paying that much money for water, guess again. That's a very expensive thing for me. With the economy the way it is, I wish it would cut back," he said, a six-man landscaping crew still rumbling.

"What do you do? You have to maintain it."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Developer Al Austin defends his water use: 'I'm doing the right thing' 04/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 4:44pm]
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