State regulators have slightly loosened watering restrictions on the Tampa Bay region, voting Tuesday to back down from the toughest limits ever imposed.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District governing board voted to keep its current lawn-watering restrictions, limiting residents of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties to sprinkling lawns once a week from midnight to 4 a.m.
But the agency commonly known as Swiftmud voted unanimously to allow residents to wash cars once a week at home, use a pressure washer at home and run ornamental fountains for four hours a day. Groups like Boy Scout troops and churches can once again hold carwashes to raise money.
Also dropped by Swiftmud: a hard-to-enforce requirement that buildings with water-based air conditioning systems set thermostats to at least 78 degrees.
Executive Director Dave Moore said his agency was keeping the restrictions "that generate the biggest water savings while removing those that provide minimal savings but the biggest complaints."
Swiftmud had enacted what it called Phase III lawn watering restrictions last year, because the region had been suffering from a long dry spell that had already lasted two years.
Then, in the fall, the region's wholesale utility, Tampa Bay Water, halfway drained its 15-billion gallon reservoir to investigate cracking in the walls. That meant the reservoir could not provide enough water to tide the region over during the dry season, as it has in the past.
Once the reservoir was empty, Swiftmud agreed to Tampa Bay Water's request to impose its most severe Phase IV watering limits, something it had never done before. The main target: lawn-watering, which gulps a large portion of residential use.
For instance, on Jan. 27 — a day when lawn watering was allowed throughout the area — people in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties used about 257 million gallons of water. By comparing that with a day when watering wasn't allowed, Tampa Bay Water officials figure that 55 million gallons of water was used just to keep lawns green.
With the new limits, imposed March 31, Swiftmud also pushed local utilities to step up enforcement of the lawn-watering restrictions. Between November and mid July, local governments had handed out 11,493 citations, according to Swiftmud's figures.
Swiftmud also pushed other ideas, including asking restaurants not to serve water unless patrons requested it. Swiftmud officials also called for a "drought summit" for local governments to study ideas for ways to save water, such as imposing a "drought surcharge" on water bills for the heaviest water users.
The rainy season began in June, and so far the summer has brought average rainfall. But lake levels are still averaging about 1.26 feet below the lowest normal readings and river levels are dropping again, Swiftmud officials said.
The C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir has more than 5 billion gallons in it now — still only one-third of its capacity.
So although the remaining Phase IV restrictions were set to expire at the end of July, Swiftmud voted to extend them another 30 days and review the situation again next month.