Swiftmud decides against drastic changes in watering restrictions

BROOKSVILLE — State water managers shied away Tuesday from imposing the toughest possible watering restrictions on the Tampa Bay region, saying they were concerned about the economic impact on agriculture and other businesses.

However, the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District voted 12-1 to tweak the existing restrictions, which currently limit lawn sprinkling to once a week. Most notable for consumers: Restaurants would be told not to serve glasses of water except on request.

The agency commonly known as Swiftmud also recommended calling a "drought summit" to discuss other conservation measures, and slapping a "drought surcharge" on people who use too much water.

"We think we can do more under our current restrictions," said Swiftmud's executive director, Dave Moore. Tightening the restrictions, he said, "is a decision that can have extraordinary consequences."

Two weeks ago, Tampa Bay Water — which is the wholesale water supplier for utilities in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties — asked Swiftmud to impose the tightest watering restrictions possible, for the first time in history.

The region has been suffering from a drought for three years, and weather experts predict the dry spell is likely to continue for several more months.

As a result, lakes throughout the Tampa Bay area are half a foot below where they were last year, said Granville Kinsman, Swiftmud's hydrologic data manager. The Hillsborough and Alafia rivers, which help provide water for the region, have dropped to just 2 percent of their normal flow.

And the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir, which can hold 15 billion gallons, has been drained to just 520 million gallons as of Monday.

"That's 9 billion gallons less than it had in it this time last year," Kinsman said. (Cracks in the reservoir walls cut its capacity in half starting in the fall.)

Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber said the subject of tighter restrictions is likely come up again soon.

"The dry season is just starting," he said. "It won't be long before there's no water left in the reservoir and nothing left in the rivers. That will be a worse situation than what we're in today."

On Jan. 27 — a day when lawn watering was allowed throughout the area — people in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties used about 257 million gallons of water. By comparing that with a day when watering wasn't allowed, Tampa Bay Water officials figure that 55 million gallons of water was used to keep lawns green.

To slake the thirst of the region's 2 million users, Tampa Bay Water is mostly relying on its desalination plant, which can produce a maximum of 25 million gallons a day, and its well fields, which are allowed to pump no more than 90 million gallons a day.

Utility officials say they are likely to violate their pumping permit —- which is supposed to protect local lakes, ponds and wetlands from being drained by overpumping —- unless they can get more water from elsewhere.

The utility is trying to tap some emergency sources, such as drawing 3 million gallons a day from Sulphur Springs. It's also exploring whether it can take water out of a sinkhole in Hillsborough County.

But utility officials say that to avoid overpumping, they needed Swiftmud to impose more stringent watering limits than the ones that have been in place since last year, which are known as "modified Phase 3" restrictions.

The strictest restrictions, known as "Phase 4," would prohibit a variety of water uses, such as the operation of ornamental fountains and fundraising carwashes. Pressure washing would be limited to only cases involving a threat to health or safety, basically forbidding that practice. And while lawn watering would still be allowed, the hours would be cut back.

Also, under Phase 4 there would be no exemption for landowners with more than 2 acres. Phase 3 allows those landowners to continue watering twice a week, but Phase 4 would require them to cut back to once a week, too.

Sod growers turned out in force at Tuesday's Swiftmud meeting to oppose those tighter watering limits, arguing that Phase 4 restrictions would shut them down. Moore, the Swiftmud executive director, said the pressure-washing prohibition also would shut down commercial painting operations.

"You're starting to affect people's livelihoods," Moore said.

"Right now that's not a good thing," agreed Swiftmud board chairman Neil Combee.

Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida warned the board that it should look beyond the immediate crisis and impose conditions for long-term water conservation, such as requiring the utilities to order new customers to buy low-flow toilets and soil-sensor-activated sprinkler systems.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

Swiftmud decides against drastic changes in watering restrictions 02/24/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 6:35am]

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