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Swiftmud approves tougher watering restrictions for Tampa Bay area

BROOKSVILLE

Get ready to turn off your cute backyard fountain, adjust the sprinkler timer and take the car to a carwash.

State regulators on Tuesday approved tough new water-use rules for the region even though they could cost 347 jobs and $20 million in lost business.

The restrictions affect Tampa Bay Water customers, which includes Pinellas, Pasco and Hills- borough counties and most cities except Tampa, where tougher standards are already in place. They take effect Friday and run at least through the end of June.

The rules reduce hours for lawn sprinkling, and ban ornamental fountains, residential pressure washing and car washing. Buildings that use water cooling towers for air-conditioning must have thermostats set at 78 degrees or above.

Hours for lawn sprinkling are midnight to 4 a.m. for properties less than 1 acre, and midnight to 4 a.m. and 8 p.m. to midnight for properties larger than 1 acre, on designated watering days. Hand-watering will be allowed from 6 to 8 a.m. and from 6 to 10 p.m. on watering days.

"This is my line in the sand,'' said Hugh Gramling, who represents agricultural interests on the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud.

Restrictions go only so far in conserving water, he said.

He suggested a surcharge that would make big users pay more.

"The most effective tool we have is money," he said.

The board took no immediate action on that proposal, but agreed to return to it in the future, citing a St. Petersburg Times report that 35 homes used more than 1 million gallons last year.

The rules passed Tuesday by Swiftmud do not affect those who get their water from the city of Tampa, which last week passed even more stringent watering rules that include a sprinkler ban. Those who have reclaimed water also aren't affected.

Swiftmud made the decision after getting an update on the three-year drought. Weather experts predict a drier than normal spring that will continue at least until the start of the rainy season in June.

Officials hope the new rules will cut water use by 20 percent and save 50 million gallons a day.

Tampa Bay Water, which provides much of the region's water, is struggling to meet demand. Its desalination plant is operating below capacity and a 15-billion gallon reservoir is essentially empty.

The restrictions that Swiftmud ultimately approved do to some extent protect businesses.

For example, residential and charity carwashes are barred, but commercial car wash and mobile detailing operations are allowed. Homeowners can't use pressure washers, but they can hire a company to do the work for them.

Water managers had considered a total ban on professional pressure washing, but analysts determined that could eliminate another 2,226 jobs and $81 million in business revenues, in part because painters and concrete refinishers rely on it.

"That's a big relief," said James Kotow, who owns a pressure cleaning business in Weeki Wachee.

Commercial car washes will also benefit. A Swiftmud economic analysis shows an increase in car wash business will offset job losses in the irrigation and landscape industries.

Sod farmers took a beating at the Swiftmud meeting, with some people saying the restrictions don't go far enough because they still allow extra watering of new sod.

Steven Morris of Odessa argued that irrigation accounts for 50 percent of water use in the area. Morris told the board its job is to protect water resources.

"Are we worried about the drought or are we worried about watering green grass?" he asked.

Barbara Dowling, a community activist from northwest Hillsborough's Keystone neighborhood, told the board, "Green grass is a luxury."

"Our wells, our wetlands and our lakes are already stressed," she said.

Property owners need to move toward "Florida-friendly" landscaping that uses less water than grass, board member Todd Pressman said.

Sod farmers say they're already hurting.

"When you've done one thing for 50 years, we can't turn around tomorrow and do something else," said Frank Favata, owner of Jimmy's Sod Co. in Tampa.

As he watches landscapers and big sod farms shut down, he hopes his own business survives.

"You have the economic situation and the water ban situation," he said. "March, April, May and part of June should be our busy times, and it's not here. Everything is way down."

Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

What's allowed, what's not

New restrictions affecting most water users in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties take effect Friday.

• Weekly watering between midnight and 4 a.m. on designated day only, for properties less than 1 acre.

Banned: fountains, pressure washing and car washing by homeowners. Sprinklers are also banned in Tampa.

Still allowed: commercial car washing, pressure washing; some hand watering.

Swiftmud approves tougher watering restrictions for Tampa Bay area 03/31/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 6, 2009 8:13am]
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