As the traditionally dry spring approaches, regional water managers are asking the state to impose the toughest watering restrictions in history.
The reservoir that helps supply water to the Tampa Bay area is about a month from being drained, a sign of how dire the problem has become, officials with Tampa Bay Water said Monday.
"We're in a severe water shortage, and we need to take action," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, chairman of the utility's board.
To cope, water officials will pump more water from the aquifer than allowed. They will consider a "drought surcharge" on heavy users. And they may increase restrictions from the current classification of Phase III (which allows lawn watering once a week) to Phase IV, which would bring the tightest rules ever on lawn watering, ornamental fountains and car washes.
Rainfall has been below average since 2007, leaving rivers with less than their usual flows. The Hillsborough River, for instance, is 80 percent below normal. When the rivers drop to a certain point, Tampa Bay Water can't take any water out to fill up its reservoir.
In September the utility began tapping the reservoir to slake the region's thirst. But it was only half full at that point, which has contributed to Tampa Bay Water's troubles.
The reservoir — the largest in Florida, covering about 1,100 acres — is supposed to hold 15 billion gallons of water for use by customers in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
The walls consist of an earthen embankment as wide as a football field at its base, averaging about 50 feet high, with an impermeable membrane to prevent leaks. The top layer of the embankment is a mixture of soil and cement to prevent erosion.
In December 2006, utility officials discovered cracks in the top layer. An independent inspector hired by the state Department of Environmental Protection reported that the cracks were up to 400 feet long and up to 15½ inches deep.
So as engineers searched for the cause of the cracks, Tampa Bay Water kept the reservoir only half full, which means that as of last fall it contained only 6.5 billion gallons.
By Jan. 26, the reservoir had been drained to 1.2 billion gallons, and it has continued to drop steadily since.
"We have about 700 million gallons remaining, which is less than 30 days of supplies," said Alison Adams, the utility's senior manager, said Monday.
That's not the only reservoir being drained. Tampa primarily relies on its Hillsborough River Reservoir to meet the water needs of its 656,000 residents. As of Feb. 10, the reservoir's level was below 20 feet, a level not normally seen until the end of the dry season in late May.
Officials say they will have to pump more water out of the ground, even though that violates Tampa Bay Water's pumping permit. The agency was created in 1998 because local governments were suing each other over the consequences of pumping too much water from the ground. Part of Tampa Bay Water's mission is to curb groundwater pumping and try alternatives such as the reservoir.
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 and the hours when ornamental fountains can operate.
Now Tampa Bay Water has asked the Southwest Florida Water Management District to step up the limits to Phase IV, a level the agency has never before used.
"That's unprecedented," said Richard Owen, deputy director of the agency commonly known as Swiftmud. The state agency has never approved Phase IV restrictions, he said, not even in 1998 when wildfires burned in every county in Florida, consuming 500,000 acres, destroying 330 houses and other buildings, and then-Gov. Lawton Chiles asked everyone to pray for rain.
If the agency approves that step, it could mean reducing even further the times when homeowners can irrigate their lawns, as well as impose further limits on car washes and ornamental fountains. The request is on the water district's Feb. 24 agenda.
Although the utility is gearing up its desalination plant to produce the maximum of 25 million gallons a day starting next month, that's the most expensive water to produce, utility officials said, and could eventually drive up water rates.