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Tampa Bay officials don't monitor whether buildings with water cooling towers meet Swiftmud's 78-degree rule

Night and day, county and city inspectors are searching for homeowners watering their lawns too much. They're checking on whether fountains are turned off. They're keeping an eye out for such forbidden practices as fundraising carwashes and residential pressure-washing.

After all, in Tampa Bay's ongoing drought, every drop of water is precious, and so all the watering restrictions must be obeyed.

All but one.

So far, no official is enforcing the thermostat rule — the one that says offices and stores in buildings that use water cooling towers for air conditioning must set their thermostats at 78 degrees or above.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, better known as Swiftmud, imposed a host of tough new water-use restrictions last month, after getting an update on the three-year drought. Weather experts predict a drier than normal spring that will continue at least until the start of the rainy season in June.

Officials hope the new rules will cut water use by 20 percent and save 50 million gallons a day.

But the thermostat rule drew mostly quizzical looks from utilities officials, especially after Swiftmud regulators admitted they weren't certain how much water the rule might save or even how many buildings might be affected.

Two weeks into the restrictions, Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said the state agency has not been tracking compliance with that particular rule.

"The enforcement reports from the local governments only specify how many warnings and citations they have issued," she said in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "However, no one has said they are not enforcing the cooling towers."

Well, they're not.

St. Petersburg and Pinellas County utility officials say they are too busy nailing illegal lawn-sprinkling to run around with a thermometer checking building temperatures. Hillsborough County officials say they aren't even sure which buildings to check.

Barton Weiss, director of strategic water management for Hillsborough County, said the county has requested a meeting with Swiftmud to clarify how they're expected to enforce the rule. "I don't think it's ever been a requirement before, so we need to have a discussion about it," he said. "There are no guidelines on how to enforce the temperature ban."

Elias Franco, distribution division manager for the Tampa water department, said the city is adjusting its own thermostats, and water cops can issue citations if they're in buildings whose managers don't follow the rule.

But like other governments, he said, Tampa's primary focus is on nabbing irrigation scofflaws, not those trickier temperature checks.

"We don't have the staff to walk into buildings and check thermostats," he said. "That's just reality."

Still, some building managers are trying to comply with the rules anyway. The Westfield Countryside shopping mall in Clearwater, for instance, has dialed its thermostat up.

Shoppers may or may not notice a difference, according to the company running it.

"The interior temperature of the center varies, based on a number of factors, including exterior climate condition," said Tara Martin, Westfield's regional marketing director. Asked if she herself had noticed the mall getting hotter, Martin said, "I can't answer that."

Not everybody has leaped to do Swiftmud's bidding. Hillsborough County's school system had already raised the temperature to 76 as a money-saving measure, said spokesman Steve Hegarty, "and we heard about it."

Raising the temperature two more degrees at the 39 schools that still have water-cooled air conditioning systems "would be tough." Therefore, Hegarty said, school officials have decided to put off making a decision on moving the thermostat dial to 78 until the next school year.

Which starts after the rainy season, when Swiftmud's restrictions are likely to be a subject fit for history class.

Tampa Bay officials don't monitor whether buildings with water cooling towers meet Swiftmud's 78-degree rule 04/19/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 8:07pm]
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