Hundreds of Tampa Bay area water users have been hit with expensive violation notices as counties and cities crack down on illegal lawn sprinkling.
State water officials expect a lot more citations as they consider tighter watering restrictions to deal with increasingly dry weather.
"The nut we're really trying to crack is how do we make sure people are really following the restrictions and only watering when they're supposed to," said Dave Moore, executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "It's critical we eliminate excessive lawn watering."
The violators are usually easy to spot, said Tom Crandall of the Pinellas County utilities department.
"You see the water running down the curb, and that just leads you right to it," he said.
The increase in citations has been dramatic. Although this dry spell has been going on for three years, water officials used to hand out only warnings to violators. Now they're getting serious.
A year ago, in January 2008, Pinellas County issued 292 warnings about watering violations and just 23 citations. Last month, county workers handed out 187 citations, which carry a $188 fine, and just 37 warnings.
Pasco County gave out 93 citations in January, and the Tampa water department handed out 160 citations.
The tickets aren't popular. Earlier this month, Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano asked in a public meeting why first-time violators couldn't be given warnings instead of tickets, which in Pasco cost $42.
Since last fall, the Tampa Bay region has been under what's classified as Phase III watering restrictions, which limit lawn watering to once a week. Those restrictions also limit the amount of sprinkling for establishing new lawns, when car washes can operate and the hours when ornamental fountains can be turned on.
Now Tampa Bay Water has asked the water management district, commonly known as Swiftmud, to step up the limits to Phase IV, which the agency has never before used. The Swiftmud board will vote on the request next Tuesday.
Phase IV could bring a lot of new restrictions — for instance, all ornamental fountains could be shut off, car washes for charity might be forbidden, and lawn watering could be further restricted. Swiftmud officials are also talking about adding a "drought surcharge" to the bills of heavy residential users, to give them a financial incentive to conserve.
But so far, Moore said, he's not convinced it's time to move up to Phase IV.
"I don't think we've seen the maximum savings we can achieve to date out of Phase III," Moore said.
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.
Most watering violations occur well after dark, Crandall said. Pinellas County deploys three full-time employees to scout for watering scofflaws, and they rotate their schedules and their patrols to cover as much ground as possible. Their efforts are supplemented by six meter readers and any other county employees who notice sprinklers running when they shouldn't.
The most common excuse, Crandall said, is: My sprinkler's timer is broken.
Moore, of Swiftmud, contended the region wouldn't be in such a bad spot if not for problems with Tampa Bay Water's reservoir. While investigating the cause of cracks in the reservoir walls last fall, the utility drew down the 15-billion-gallon reservoir to about half full.
Now it's down to about 700 million gallons, which would be depleted in a month. The utility takes water out of the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers, but both have dropped so low that it cannot pull any more water out.
That leaves only two sources: the Apollo Beach desalination plant, which will have to run at its maximum capacity of 25 million gallons a day until the summer rainy season — longer than it has ever run at capacity — and pumping water out of the ground. The utility's permit says it cannot pump more than 90 million gallons day from the underground aquifer, but utility officials have acknowledged they are likely to exceed that limit.
Once the reservoir is repaired, Moore said, "we should have a very drought-resistant supply for the Tampa Bay area."