Heaviest water users likely to face surcharges, but not soon

TAMPA — Local governments throughout the Tampa Bay region are pushing ahead with adding a "drought surcharge" to the bills of the people using the most water.

"We are headed in that direction," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said after a regional "drought summit" that drew about 100 local and state officials to the Tampa Convention Center on Tuesday.

But those stiff increases for heavy water users won't take effect during the current drought.

The rainy season is expected to begin toward the end of June, but "if we wanted to change a rate today, we'd need a minimum of 60 days for public notice requirements," said George Cassady, director of St. Petersburg's water resources department.

So don't look for St. Petersburg's increase to take effect before October. And if Tampa approves a drought surcharge, it won't be before July, said Brad Baird, director of Tampa's water department.

That's fine with Dave Moore, executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the state agency that has been urging local officials to impose the tougher charge. Moore sees the surcharge as a step in preparing for a possible fourth year of drought. It all depends on how wet the summer is.

"If we have a dry summer," he said, "then next spring is going to be even more difficult."

Moore's agency, commonly known as Swiftmud, has been touting the idea of a drought surcharge for months as a way to cope with a three-year-long drought that has drained the region's reservoir, dropped river levels to record lows and led to the most stringent lawn-watering restrictions in the area's history.

Imposing a drought surcharge would "send a strong pricing signal to the high-end users" that they should get serious about cutting back, Moore said during the summit sponsored by Tampa Bay Water, the region's wholesale water utility.

A surcharge provides another benefit too, said Tony Hairston, a utility consultant. Water conservation measures like Swiftmud's sprinkling restrictions tend to cut utility revenue, he said, even though the overhead cost for providing water stays the same. Imposing higher rates for heavy users helps utilities to continue making enough money to cover their overhead and thus provide for what he called "utility revenue stability."

The drought surcharge will lead to a big jump in some water bills. St. Petersburg is considering a surcharge that would result in a 100 percent increase for its approximately 500 biggest users, Cassady said. Those users are currently paying about $4.50 per 1,000 gallons, and would thus pay double that amount.

Tampa's surcharge would likely push the top rate from $4.06 per 100 cubic feet (about 748 gallons) for city residents to $8, Baird said. For Tampa utility customers living outside city limits, the top charge would go from $5.09 to $12, he said.

Some of those new charges — including St. Petersburg's — would last beyond the current drought, to affect billing year-round.

Pasco County commissioners are supposed to discuss a drought surcharge on May 19, with Hillsborough County following suit on May 20, and the Tampa City Council tackling the issue May 28. So far, Pinellas County commissioners and the New Port Richey City Council have not scheduled a discussion of the surcharge, but the staff is evaluating the idea, Moore said.

However, some speakers at Tuesday's summit urged a more sweeping change to conserve water.

Pierce Jones, a University of Florida professor of agricultural and biological engineering, noted that developers who build in wetland areas truck in "sterile soil" to use as fill to put homes above the water level, disrupting the natural soil profile. Then they compact it with bulldozers and cover it with thirsty sod.

The result is a subdivision that's "heavily dependent on irrigation and fertilizer." Replicate that over and over, as has occurred in Pasco County, he said, "and it becomes a regional scale problem in terms of water supply. ... The status quo is failing. We cannot continue as we are."

Tampa currently has the dubious distinction of being home to the most single-family customers likely to be hit with a drought surcharge. More than 10 percent of its single-family customers, or about 11,000 homes total, are using nearly 15,000 gallons a month. Hillsborough County runs a close second. Pasco has 900 customers using above the 15,000-gallon a month threshold. St. Petersburg has 569, and New Port Richey has 335. Pinellas County's numbers were not available.

However, Tampa also leads the region in reducing its water use. Tampa residents have cut their use by nearly 20 percent compared to what they were consuming this time last year, according to Moore.

Each of Tampa Bay Water's customers uses an average of 109 gallons of water per day, compared to the statewide average of 157 gallons a day per person, Moore said.

Heaviest water users likely to face surcharges, but not soon 05/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 11:48am]

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