Residents and businesses in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties will be restricted to watering lawns once a week starting in March under new sprinkling limits imposed Tuesday by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The restrictions, approved by a unanimous vote by the agency commonly known as Swiftmud, go into effect March 13 and will not expire until the end of July.
In addition to limiting lawn-watering days, sprinkling would be restricted to before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m. on those days. The last number of street addresses determines which day to water on the new schedule.
And in addition to the sprinkling limits, Swiftmud's restrictions say cars cannot be washed more than once a week and fountains can operate for no more than four hours a day.
Even hand-watering a lawn is limited to only those hours when sprinklers are allowed, though on any day.
The changes will be harder on residents in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties; Pasco County has stuck to the once-a-week watering restrictions since the last time they were imposed.
The need to cut back on water use is unavoidable, say Swiftmud officials. January and February have been drier than normal, according to Swiftmud hydrologic data manager Granville Kinsman. Across the 16 counties governed by the agency, the total rainfall for January averaged less than half an inch.
The lack of rainfall means rivers have fallen below the point at which the regional utility, Tampa Bay Water, can draw water out for its 2 million customers. And the 15 billion gallon reservoir that Tampa Bay Water normally uses to store water for dry periods has been drained for repairs designed to cure its recurring problem with cracking in the walls. Those repairs aren't scheduled to be done until 2014.
Although the utility has cranked up its frequently idled desalination plant to produce 20 million gallons of water a day, that's only one-eighth of what the three-county area uses, said Lois Sorenson, who is in charge of demand management for Swiftmud.
To keep up with demand, pumping from the well fields is up, but so far it has yet to hit the maximum amount allowed by Swiftmud.
Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber said last week that the utility should be able to avoid overpumping — and the fines that can follow — "if we get rainfall, and if people cut back."
To make sure everyone's following the rules, inspectors from local government will be searching for violators, and no one will get off lightly, according to Bob Powell, Pinellas County's water manager.
"It's going to be much more restrictive than our normal situation," he told commissioners Tuesday. "Inspectors will not be allowed to issue a warning. We will begin a citation right away."
Swiftmud last imposed once-a-week restrictions last spring, but lifted them in the summer during the rainy season. Six years ago, Swiftmud imposed the once-a-week restrictions and had to keep them in place from January 2007 to June 2010.
Water managers are hopeful that the summer rainy season will turn things around — and Kinsman noted some heavy downpours in the Tampa Bay area on Tuesday.
"The good news is that there's rain coming," he said.
Times staff writer Anna M. Phillips contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.