Homeowner, get used to that sickly looking lawn. Local water managers are saying not to resod until summer.
That means no sheets of green turf off a flatbed. It also means no plastic trays of plugs from the garden center.
"Anything that causes you to need more water is unacceptable,'' said Robyn Felix, a spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud.
The agency's order, issued more than three weeks ago, has created confusion for local government, an enforcement issue for homeowner associations, and panic among small businesses that install turf.
Blame drought conditions, which created a water shortage affecting Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, but not Hernando. Rainfall is inadequate and expected to stay that way in the coming dry months. Water levels in October and November were at all-time lows along the Hillsborough River, said Tampa water chief Brad Baird.
"For us, it's critical that we have enough for essential uses,'' he said, estimating that up to half the city's water goes to irrigation. "This is serious, and we're running out of choices.''
Swiftmud asked cities and counties to enforce the restrictions.
Despite the clear need, and reams of material released by the region's water managers, government agencies have interpreted the antisod order in a variety of ways.
Some described it this week as a ban on resodding. Others said you can lay sod, but it can't be watered more than once a week — a death sentence for new turf during the dry season.
"We're recommending that folks not resod, but our understanding is that it's not mandatory," Pinellas County conservation director Todd Tanberg said Friday morning.
Later in the day, after a fax and a phone call from Swiftmud, he said: "We see now that there is a prohibition against turf grass renovation.''
And, he said, "We will enforce it.''
Officials suggest confusion exists because of the many lists of dos and dont's.
Sod can still be planted in communities that use reclaimed water, and at new homes and along new roads. New shrubs — but not new sod — can have extra water. There are new rules for hand-watering flowers and shorter hours to operate fountains.
"We're still finding micro-interpretations,'' said Michelle Van Dyke, a Hillsborough County Water spokeswoman. "It will be interesting to see how all this plays out.''
The sharpest complaints are coming from landscape and sod businesses, already suffering from the recession and housing slowdown.
"Don't buy sod? It's like saying, go to the store but you can't buy a blouse, or shirt, or whatever,'' said Frank Favata, co-owner of Jimmy's Sod in Tampa. He fears for his 10 employees, sod farmers and truckers. "We're not against water restrictions, but let's get reasonable,'' he said.
And it's little consolation that new homes can get lawns.
"Just let me know where they are,'' said Rafael Velazquez of RB Sod in Seffner, who was counting on a surge of business as homeowners spruce up for Thanksgiving and Christmas. "They made this decision at a really bad time."
Oscar Rodriguez, who owns O.B. Sod in Tampa, wrote to everyone from Mayor Pam Iorio to President-elect Barack Obama, predicting the demise of his 10-year-old business. "Should we inquire (about) a government bailout?'' he wrote.
Homeowner associations also are in a quandary as they seek to uphold deed restrictions without asking residents to break the law.
While some communities are switching to low-volume irrigation for their common areas and asking residents to do the same, officers acknowledge they can't turn a blind eye to a brown lawn.
"We'd just probably give the person special dispensation, and then tell them that when sodding is allowed, they have to get to it,'' said Dean Philson, president of the property owners association at Greenbriar in Sun City Center.
Pasco County water systems manager Marvin Kaden said his department is reaching out to homeowner associations to make them aware of the restrictions and fines of up to $500.
Swiftmud also has contacted 1,700 homeowner groups, Felix said, and asked them to publish the rules in their newsletters.
Still, officials predict brown lawn sufferers will feel squeezed.
"We often get complaints from homeowners who feel they are between a rock and a hard place, between deed restrictions and water restrictions,'' said Van Dyke, the Hillsborough County water spokeswoman. Many would rather risk a county fine than an association's wrath.
"Homeowner associations are required by law to maintain the deed restrictions,'' said Tanberg, who lives in deed-restricted Ridgemoor near Lake Tarpon. He suggested that, faced with noncompliance, his own association could re-sod a lawn — and bill the homeowner.
Swiftmud will intercede if anyone receives a citation for failing to resod, Felix said "We will have the homeowner give us a copy, and we will contact the homeowner association,'' she said.
But while Felix said the Swiftmud order supersedes any deed restriction, Tanberg said that may be something that will ultimately be resolved in court.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or email@example.com.
Lack of water prompts sod restrictions
Why the sod ban?
New sod requires intensive watering, and water sources are low. Swiftmud describes the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers as "critically abnormal," the worst of four drought indicators. Rainfall is below normal and expected to stay that way through April.
Can anyone install sod?
New homes and roadsides can receive sod to prevent erosion. Reclaimed water users can resod, but those with wells cannot.
What if I sod my lawn anyway?
Swiftmud has asked local governments to increase enforcement and fines can cost hundreds of dollars.
Can my homeowner association come after me if my lawn dies?
Experts say that with proper care, fertilization and weekly watering, you can maintain your lawn. Resources include Florida Yards & Neighborhoods, a University of Florida extension service. Call (727) 582-2422 in Pinellas or (813) 744-5519 in Hillsborough. If you get in a jam with your homeowner association, Swiftmud (toll free, 1-800-423-1476) says it will intercede. But once the drought eases, your association will expect to see your lawn repaired.