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Water cops cracking down on Tampa Bay area abusers

Aggressive efforts to curb water use are under way, and Tampa Bay residents are starting to feel the impact.

In St. Petersburg, water cops are targeting middle-of-the-night abusers, issuing more than 100 citations in three days. In Pasco County, wrong-day waterers likely will pay stiffer fines. And in Tampa, city officials are considering banning watering altogether.

"Nobody wants to see their lawn turn brown," Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena said. "But if it's a choice between your lawn turning brown and no water coming out of your spigot to drink, then I vote for the spigot.''

The extreme measures come in response to a drought that already has prompted regional water officials to restrict lawn watering to one day a week. It's up to local governments to enforce those restrictions.

This week, St. Petersburg's new 2 a.m.-to-dawn patrol has issued more citations in three days than in the last six months. Violators will be mailed $188 citations within a few days.

"Awesome," said Robyn Felix, spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "That was part of Phase 3, is we asked everyone in the three-county area to step it up."

Night patrols in Hillsborough, Hernando and Pinellas counties and Tampa are among several responses to the worsening water crisis.

At a Tampa City Council meeting today, members will consider tightening water restrictions beyond those mandated by Swiftmud.

"I believe in no sprinkling. It's got to be done," said council member Charlie Miranda. "Hand-watering is the first step to reducing consumption. If that doesn't work we have to go to no watering at all."

In St. Petersburg, City Council chairman Jeff Danner said such a ban is not out of the question.

"If it's that serious, lawns should be the last thing we're putting water on," Danner said.

Some areas still favor less severe measures.

Pasco County recently has stepped up enforcement and issued 900 citations since November, including 121 last weekend. It's also considering automatic fines of $42 to residents who water on the wrong days.

Pinellas County water cops, who always have worked day and night, recently tinkered with their schedules to catch violators who figured out the gaps between shifts.

Despite the measures, the numbers of citations Pinellas has issued has been dropping, from 242 in October to 140 last month.

Pinellas enforcement supervisor Terrie Lee Grace said people are getting the message.

Media coverage, she said, also has prompted more people to turn in their neighbors.

"Every time there is a news article or TV spot," Grace said, "we do get increases in the number of reports of violation, citizen complaints."

But that may not be enough to keep the Tampa Bay area from moving to Phase 4 watering restrictions, the strictest level, when Swiftmud leaders meet on March 31.

Fundraising car washes and ornamental fountains would be out. Pressure washing would be limited to cases involving a threat to health or safety. And lawn watering would be reduced even more.

"This is what we really need," said Dave Bracciano of Tampa Bay Water, the regional water authority. "We need all the local governments working together; this is a really serious situation.''

Staff writers Lisa Buie, Aaron Sharockman and Barb Behrendt contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at (727) 893-8452 or nipps@sptimes.com.

Water cops cracking down on Tampa Bay area abusers 03/18/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 20, 2009 3:50pm]
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