Despite spending millions of dollars on a reservoir and a desalination plant, Tampa Bay Water expects to pump far more water from the aquifer than it's supposed to this spring, the utility's manager told state officials Monday.
Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber blamed the drought that has afflicted the region since 2006.
"We will need to use more groundwater," he said. "We have no other realistic alternative."
Although the utility has imposed watering limits, Seeber said demand has increased from people who still want to water their lawns — even as the economy has cut back on the number of new customers hooking up to the system.
The utility has spent a decade building expensive new water supply projects, such as the 15 billion-gallon reservoir and the 25 million-gallon desalination plant, to avoid pumping so much water from the aquifer.
In 1998, the utility pumped 147 million gallons a day from underground, damaging area lakes, rivers and wetlands.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District ordered Tampa Bay Water to cut its pumping to below 90 million gallons per day by December 2008.
But the agency, commonly called Swiftmud, put up more than $85 million to pay for alternative water supply sources, such as taking millions of gallons from the Alafia and Hillsborough rivers and the Tampa Bypass Canal.
Thanks to those new sources, by last month the amount being pumped from area well fields had dropped to about 87 million gallons a day, Seeber told a joint meeting of his utility board and the Swiftmud board at the Brooker Creek Preserve. Nearly 40 percent of the utility's water supply now comes from the rivers and the desalination plant, he said.
But rainfall in 2006 and 2007 fell so far below normal that even last year's rainfall, which measured up to the low end of the normal range, couldn't make up the deficit. Area lakes and rivers are still far below normal.
That limits how much water the utility can take out of the Alafia and Hillsborough, although Swiftmud is still allowing Tampa Bay Water to drain more water from the Tampa Bypass Canal. Meanwhile the use of the reservoir, where Tampa Bay Water would store that surface water, has been limited by mysterious cracks in the walls.
Lacking any heavy rainfall from a tropical storm or hurricane, the utility's 2 million customers have increased their wasteful sprinkling, Seeber said.
To keep pace with that demand without drawing more water from the rivers is difficult. Instead, the utility expects to pump more than 100 million gallons a day from the ground in March, more than 140 million in April and peak at more than 160 million in May.
"We anticipate that some of the monthly totals this spring will be as high as before the alternate supply sources were built," Seeber said.
The end of June marks the start of the rainy season, and Seeber said he hopes demand will then start to drop.
State water managers may look at tighter watering restrictions next month, a Swiftmud spokesman said.
Such a big increase in pumping will violate the water-use permit that Swiftmud has issued to Tampa Bay Water.
But Swiftmud chairman Neil Combee said that, rather than hammering the utility for a violation, the agency will be working with Seeber and other utility officials to cope with water shortages.
"We're all in this together," Combee said. "We're going to work together and pray for rain."
Combee said he recently heard a television meteorologist say a weekend storm would be bad news, and "I thought they should take that guy out and flog him in the public square."