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Tampa Bay Water warned of $1 million fine for overpumping

CLEARWATER — Tampa Bay Water faces a potential fine of $1 million for overpumping from its 11 well fields during the ongoing drought, the utility's general manager told the board Monday.

General Manager Gerald Seeber warned that the agency that would be imposing the fine, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, is likely to also require adding a "drought surcharge" to utility bills. The surcharge would be used to further discourage water users from wasting it.

Seeber told the utility board that the fine imposed by the agency commonly known as Swiftmud would likely take the form of a requirement to spend money on a water conservation project, rather than a demand to pay Swiftmud that amount.

He said he was disappointed that his appeal to the Swiftmud board for lenience was rejected because he regarded the state agency as a partner. In the past the utility and the regulatory agency have worked hand in hand to tackle the problem of environmental damage from overpumping.

"Partners don't fine each other," he said.

Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said it would be premature to talk about the size or nature of a fine at this point. The fine depends on how much overpumping occurs for how long, she said, and can go as high as $10,000 a day.

"To my knowledge, we have never fined that amount before," she said. The largest overpumping fine Swiftmud has levied in recent years was $175,000 for Aloha Utilities, a private utility that serves customers in west Pasco County.

The Tampa Bay region has been caught in a drought for the past three years, leading Swiftmud to recently impose the toughest watering restrictions in history.

But Tampa Bay Water — which sells drinking and sprinkling supplies to the utilities in Pasco, Hills­borough and Pinellas counties — has been struggling to keep up with demand. Its 15 billion-gallon reservoir has been drained. Because local rivers have dropped too low to use, its 66 million-gallon surface-water treatment plant has been shut down.

And its desalination plant, which is supposed to produce 25 million gallons of water a day, has been unable to produce more than 14.7 million gallons a day so far, Seeber said.

That leaves just water pumped from the underground aquifer as the primary source for slaking the region's thirst, along with conservation.

Swiftmud helped pay for building the reservoir and the desal plant in exchange for a promise that Tampa Bay Water would cut down on groundwater pumping, a practice that in the past has drained lakes and wetlands and ruined private wells. The utility's permit, issued by Swiftmud, requires it to limit pumping to 90 million gallons a day.

In 1998 the utility pumped 147 million gallons a day from underground. Thanks to those new water sources, by December that amount had dropped to 87 million gallons a day.

But Tampa Bay Water's leaders warned Swiftmud in January that unless weather conditions changed, they were sure to violate that pumping limit sometime in the spring.

Sure enough, as of March, the utility was 6 million gallons over, and it's likely to far exceed the limit by the time the rainy season resumes in June. The most recent forecast shows the utility pumping more than 150 million gallons a day out of the ground in May.

Back in January, Swiftmud officials promised they would work with Tampa Bay Water in finding a way to deal with the problem.

"We're all in this together," Swiftmud chairman Neil Combee said at the time. "We're going to work together and pray for rain."

But when Seeber asked Swiftmud officials for some leniency for violating the pumping permit, he said Monday, he was told that a hefty fine was likely instead.

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

Tampa Bay Water warned of $1 million fine for overpumping 04/20/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 20, 2009 10:46pm]

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