NEW PORT RICHEY — Your friendly utility worker won't be packing heat.
But he's got a new tool besides a pipe wrench to fight the residents who violate the watering restrictions on their lawns.
Pasco County has deputized 30 county utilities employees to write citations in a crackdown on people who water their lawns more than once a week or violate other conservation rules. The tickets start at $30, plus court costs.
The rollout began a week ago to heighten scrutiny usually done by code enforcement officers. Since then, 79 citations have been issued. Of them, 55 were written by the utility workers who normally test wells and check pipes in Pasco neighborhoods.
By comparison, Pasco issued 273 citations during the entire previous year, according to county and state records.
Utility workers start trolling as early as 4 a.m., focusing on the large neighborhoods with the highest water use, such as Beacon Woods, Heritage Lake and Water's Edge. But they also check during normal routines.
And now, there often isn't a warning issued first.
"We're not there to be police officers," said James Kaplan, a deputized operations supervisor. "But we are there to make sure people know what's going on — and to write tickets."
Jim Flateau, who lives in the Ballantrae community in Land O'Lakes, said residents have to cope with conservation rules. People are more concerned about dead lawns at foreclosed homes than how much water their neighbor is using, he said. But he said they understand their lawns may brown a bit in order to conserve water.
"You do what you got to do," said Flateau, chairman of Ballantrae's community development district board.
But limits on watering grass could be particularly felt in places where neighborhood associations demand that grass be kept green. Pasco's Council of Neighborhood Associations has advised its 140 organizations to back off its demands for lush lawns, said Dominick Scannavino, CONA's president.
"What we're trying to do is basically explain to them the seriousness of this," Scannavino said. "If the association basically forces someone to break the rule, they can get fined, too. I hate to use the fear factor, but it basically comes down to that."
The crackdown resulted from a Oct. 28 order by Southwest Florida Water Management District to step up enforcement and tighten other water use restrictions. Besides tougher enforcement, Swiftmud decided to reduce watering times for fountains and new plants, and demand lawn replacements be postponed.
It came at the request of Tampa Bay Water, the region's water supply agency. Water levels have not returned from predrought conditions, and the region is still suffering from two years of dryness, according to Tampa Bay Water. It's expected to be dry till at least spring.
The Swiftmud decision affects Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Enforcement data from other communities was unavailable because they had until Nov. 14 to start tougher ticketing, said Robyn Felix of Swiftmud, which tracks enforcement.
With the ebb and flow of water shortfalls, it's not the first time the Pasco utilities department has deputized employees to write tickets in crackdowns. (They always have been able to provide warnings in the form of door hangers.)
But it's a much bigger effort than before, said Marvin Kaden, water operations manager for Pasco.
"We believe it's very important they know the groundwater that is used comes out of Pasco and goes to the other counties," said Kaden, who also was deputized.
Utilities officials said they've sent notices to 255 neighborhood organizations, put notes with bills and made public appearances to get the word out. Susan Chase, Pasco's customer affairs manager, said the county wants to minimize the adversarial nature of the push and promote long-term conservation.
"The one thing we don't want is to look at it as crackdown," said Jeff Harris, a county environmental biologist. "We really want to look at this as … a commitment by the community to conserve."
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.
By the numbers
79 Watering restriction citations issued last week in Pasco County.
273 Watering restriction citations issued for the entire previous year.