State water officials are likely to impose the tightest watering restrictions in the region's history next week to cope with the Tampa Bay region's continuing water shortage.
Tampa Bay Water, the region's water wholesaler, sought the stepped-up restrictions a month ago, but the Southwest Florida Water Management District board rejected the request at the recommendation of its executive director, Dave Moore.
However, the drought continues, and in the past month, local officials have done more to crack down on those violating the current restrictions.
So now the staff of the agency commonly known as Swiftmud will recommend imposing the tougher restrictions, known as Phase 4, when the board meets Tuesday.
In an op-ed column running in today's St. Petersburg Times, Moore writes, "In light of the stepped-up conservation efforts by local governments, district staff believes these restrictions are now warranted and will be enforced in a meaningful way to reflect the actual conditions in the region."
Phase 4 restrictions would likely prohibit a variety of water uses, such as the operation of ornamental fountains and fundraising carwashes. Pressure washing would be limited to only cases involving a threat to health or safety, basically forbidding that practice.
Offices and stores in buildings that use water cooling towers for air conditioning are likely to be required to set their thermostats at 78 degrees or above.
And while lawn watering would still be allowed, the hours would probably be cut back.
That's still not as strict as what the Tampa City Council imposed last week: No lawn sprinkling at all, period.
As of Friday, Moore and his staff were still working out exactly what the Phase 4 restrictions will entail, Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said.
"We're looking at reduced hours for irrigation and looking at nonessential water uses such as residential pressure washing, residential car washing and fountains," she said.
Moore's staff is also supposed to present a report on "economic impact findings" from the stepped-up restrictions, but Felix said that's still in the works.
"The situation that we face continues to be critical and any action taken by the regulatory agency can only help in managing water supply during this drought," Tampa Bay Water manager Gerald Seeber said upon learning Moore's recommendation.
Since last year, the Tampa Bay region has been under a version of the Phase 3 restrictions, which limits lawn sprinkling to once a week.
The region has been suffering from a drought for three years, and weather experts predict the dry spell is likely to continue until at least the start of the rainy season in June.
The underground aquifer is more than 2 feet below its normal level. Lakes throughout the Tampa Bay area are half a foot below where they were last year. The Hillsborough and Alafia rivers, which help provide water for the region, have dropped to just 2 percent of their normal flow.
The C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir, which can hold 15 billion gallons, has been drained, and the desalination plant in Apollo Beach is struggling to produce more than 15 million gallons a day. Most of the water now is coming from Tampa Bay Water's 11 well fields, where an increase in pumping beyond the permitted limit is likely to further drain lakes, wetlands and private wells.
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 55 million gallons of water went to keep lawns green.
When the Swiftmud board considered the utility's request for Phase 4 restrictions last month, board members said they were concerned about the economic impact on agriculture and other businesses. Instead they encouraged local governments to step up enforcement of the Phase 3 limits.