Water cops have a new ally in their battle against drought:
In the past week, water agencies throughout the Tampa Bay area have been besieged by anonymous callers eager to report water violators.
The worsening drought, reports of a drained regional water reservoir and a crackdown on water rules have caught the public's attention.
"We have noticed that people are more irritated than usual," said Michelle Van Dyke of Hillsborough County Water Services. "The gist of some of the calls are that they're following the rules. Why are their neighbors getting away with it?"
Pinellas County this week increased voice mail capacity on its water violator hotline from 20 to 50, and that may not be enough, said utilities enforcement supervisor Terrie Lee Grace.
"I really see this as our citizens are concerned, and we're all wanting to do our part," said Grace, who personally checked 50 voice mails when she got in Monday. "It's not necessarily neighbors against neighbors. People are just aware."
George Cassady, director of St. Petersburg's water resources department, said he never got calls before last week. Now he and two others in his office field about 20 calls a day.
Cassady got a call at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday from a man standing outside a house in northeast St. Petersburg, watching a lawn get watered on the wrong day. He offered to stay there indefinitely. Instead, a water cop went and issued a citation.
"We've got some people out there that are almost vigilantes, driving the streets morning and night," Cassady said. "I want to encourage that. But one thing I want people
to know is we can't return every call. We've just been inundated."
It's the same story in Tampa and in Pasco County, where water officials report a dramatic spike in anonymous calls. While the latest monthly statistics have not been compiled, March numbers are likely to double for some water departments.
People accused by neighbors of wrong-day watering are notified by a letter from the water department. They are reminded of the restrictions and the consequences of violating them, Van Dyke said.
This usually prompts another wave of calls — from the accused.
"We tell them it's just a courtesy," Grace said. "There's no fine attached."
Then there are residents, already issued citations, who call the water departments to argue.
"If it's not notifying us of violations, it's people trying to plead their case," Cassady said. " 'My sprinkler head's broken.' 'My timer was set wrong.' 'My dog ate my homework. …' We do a case-by-case evaluation. If someone can give us a good, legitimate reason, we might reconsider."
Things could get more hectic in another week.
On March 31, the Southwest Florida Water Management District will consider tightening water use rules even more, extending restrictions to carwashes and pressure washing. It may also further restrict the hours for residential watering, which would expand the hours for sprinkler snitching.
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8452.