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Tampa Bay Water leaders to hold drought summit

Tampa Bay Water leaders are calling a "drought summit" next month to gather local government officials together to figure out ways to combat the water crisis.

Among the ideas they will explore: adding a "drought surcharge" to water bills.

"A drought surcharge is simply charging extra for water during a drought to encourage reduced use," explained Mike Molligan of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the state agency commonly known as Swiftmud, which has been pushing the idea.

The summit — the first of its kind here — is scheduled for May 5 at the Tampa Convention Center, according to Tampa Bay Water spokeswoman Michelle Biddle Rapp. The speakers include Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber, Swiftmud executive director Dave Moore and state climatologist David Zierdan.

University of Florida professor Terril A. Nell will talk about landscape maintenance during a drought, and University of Florida professor Pierce Jones will talk about low-impact development.

"The overall purpose of the drought summit was to get the member governments to consider any and all measures to minimize exceedance of their groundwater permit," Molligan said.

The Tampa Bay region has been caught in a drought for three years, to the point where the U.S. Geological Survey reported this week that one of its gauges on the Hillsborough River has reached a record low.

Weather experts predict the dry spell is likely to continue until at least the start of the rainy season in June.

Tampa Bay Water's 15 billion- gallon reservoir has already run dry, its desalination plant is struggling and the regional utility is being forced to rely on pumping water out of the ground — even though that practice is known to cause private wells, lakes and wetlands to dry up and may lead to sinkholes.

Last week saw the start of the tightest watering restrictions in the region's history. Lawn watering hours were cut back. Residential car and pressure-washing was banned. Ornamental fountains had to be switched off.

And Swiftmud told office buildings, schools and department stores — any structure that uses water cooling towers for air conditioning — to turn their thermostats up to 78 degrees or higher.

It's too soon to measure how big an impact those measures have had.

In addition, Swiftmud has pushed local utilities to step up enforcement of the watering restrictions. Last month, St. Petersburg's water cops issued more than 100 citations in three days.

But Swiftmud wants local governments to come up with other ideas, too. Hence the drought summit, which is open to the public.

Those ideas could include the "drought surcharge" on water bills — most likely on heavier water users.

A recent St. Petersburg Times review of water bills found at least 35 homes across the region that used at least 1 million gallons of water last year, including those of recreational vehicle mogul Don Wallace, Tampa Bay Buccaneers co-chairman Bryan Glazer and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

The question is, if local officials agree at last to charge more for water use during a drought, how quickly can they raise the rates? Swiftmud officials say they hope the higher rate can go into effect as fast as possible.

"The more quickly local governments act on it, the more quickly it can be used as a water-saving tool," Molligan said.

Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or craig@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Water leaders to hold drought summit 04/06/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 6, 2009 11:13pm]

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