NEW PORT RICHEY — With funding almost in hand, the city figured it would clear the usual financial hurdles for a $2.2-million reclaimed water project on North River Road.
But there was one big problem: Not enough North River Road homeowners wanted it.
Only 16 percent of 483 property owners committed to hooking up to the irrigation system once it was under way. That meant the city fell far short of the 50 percent commitment by residents that Southwest Florida Water Management District required before agreeing to split the tab on construction costs.
So last week, the city had to walk away from a project that it had touted as an important piece of its water conservation efforts.
The lack of interest was surprising to many. Typically, homeowners beg for reclaimed water, which is treated wastewater suitable for irrigation.
Reclaimed water is widely seen as an affordable way to irrigate their lawns while also reducing demands on the supply of drinking water.
"I'm very disappointed. If you look at my front yard, you'd understand why," said council member Rob Marlowe, who lives on North River Road and had signed up for the service. "It's a desert."
Swiftmud had agreed to provide $1.2-million of the project, with $243,660 coming from a state water protection trust fund. The city was set to put up $985,995, which was to come from the water and sewer construction fund that is supported by user fees.
Hooking up to reclaimed water costs $75 for homeowners who have existing irrigation meters and $150 for those who do not, said city public works director Sherman Applegate. Property owners would also need to pay about $200 for a back-flow mechanism that keeps the recycled water separate from their potable water.
After that initial investment, current reclaimed water customers in the city — those in the Woodridge and Jasmine Hills neighborhoods — pay a flat fee of about $10 a month.
By comparison, an irrigation meter with potable water costs at least $20 a month, then goes up based on use.
If the North River Road project had gone through, Swiftmud would have required the city to charge residents based on how much they use. Applegate said such volumetric-based payments still would have been a fraction of what it costs to irrigate with potable water.
While the city limits irrigation with potable water to once a week, city officials say there is no limit on the days residents can irrigate with reclaimed water.
Between February and September of last year, the city sent out three notices to North River Road property owners.
When officials got the first count back — only 77 commitments out of 483 property owners — they decided to reduce the scope of the project to include only 218 homes, most of whom had existing irrigation accounts.
The second time around, the city got 59 commitments, about 27 percent of the total. Still not enough.
Why the lack of interest? It's hard to say, but a few explanations that officials are talking about include the upfront costs, the number of rental homes on North River Road and the fact that it's an older neighborhood, where some residents aren't trying to keep up expensive landscaping.
"People are really tightening their discretionary purchases," said Marlowe.
Applegate said if enough North River Road residents come forward and petition the city to try it again, it could. Otherwise, officials will look at other neighborhoods for future reclaimed projects.
Unincorporated Pasco County has not run into similar problems, in large part because it's not trying to retrofit old neighborhoods, said county utilities director Bruce Kennedy. The priority for the service is in newer areas, where developers install the necessary piping up front.
Typically, he said, demand for reclaimed water outstrips supply.
But there is one supplier that has plenty of leftovers: The city of New Port Richey sends its excess reclaimed water to the county.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.