Tampa Bay residents still may water their lawns only once a week, but state water managers will no longer limit them to just four hours under rules approved Tuesday.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, first imposed the tight restrictions March 31 in the face of a severe drought and a water shortage fueled in part by problems with Tampa Bay Water's cracked reservoir.
Under the tighter rules, known as Phase IV, residents could water lawns only once a week between midnight and 4 a.m. Restrictions also hit everything from car washing to ornamental fountain use.
But the board scaled the Phase IV rules back slightly last month, allowing residents to wash cars once a week at home, use a pressure washer at home and run ornamental fountains for four hours a day. Groups like Boy Scout troops and churches could once again hold car washes to raise money.
Also dropped by Swiftmud then: a hard-to-enforce requirement that buildings with water-based air-conditioning systems set thermostats not lower than 78 degrees.
Steady summer rains convinced Swiftmud board members meeting in Brooksville Tuesday that they could revert to the slightly looser watering restrictions that were in place last year.
Under the older restrictions, known as Phase III, lawn watering is still limited to one day a week, but can occur anytime before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m. Sprinkling at night helps keep water from evaporating quickly in the hot sun.
The board will review the restrictions the end of September.
In February, Tampa Bay Water, 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 had been suffering from a drought for three years, and weather experts predicted the dry spell was likely to continue for several more months.
Meanwhile the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir, which can hold 15 billion gallons, had been drained nearly dry. The utility had taken half the water out in the fall to try to figure out why the walls kept cracking, leaving less for the water supply during the dry season.
Although Swiftmud has now eased the restrictions, its staff said the region's water resources still have not entirely recovered from the drought.
Hydrology expert Granville Kinsman warned that "August rainfall has been below normal, and the district's water resources, such as our aquifers, rivers and lakes, are declining. We need above-normal rainfall for the water resources to fully recover from the effects of the drought."
Executive director Dave Moore said that whenever it does rain, "residents don't need to be watering their lawns. Residents should be able to turn off their irrigation systems during the rainy season."