TAMPA — Desperate to stave off the effects of what may become the worst drought on record, the Tampa City Council adopted the toughest water restrictions in the state on Thursday by banning the use of lawn sprinklers.
Municipalities across the Tampa Bay area have intensified efforts to crack down on water abusers amid a three-year drought, but other governments are not expected to follow in Tampa's footsteps just yet.
"That would be extreme for us right now," said George Cassady, director of St. Petersburg's water resources department. "Today, right now, that would be going too far, too fast. We want to see what some of our initiatives will bring us before we do something like that."
Tampa will allow only hand watering of lawns. No communities in Pasco and Hernando counties have banned the use of lawn sprinklers.
Pinellas County also has no plans to follow Tampa's lead at this time, said utilities department director Tom Crandall. He said the county has followed the direction of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which will meet March 31 to consider further tightening water rules.
Tampa's sprinkler ban is expected to save 20 to 30 million gallons of water per week through the dry season.
About 140,000 customers inside and outside of Tampa's limits and those who live in unincorporated portions of Hillsborough County will have to comply with the order or face stiff penalties — $100 for a first violation, to $450 and a mandatory court appearance for a third infraction.
Those on reclaimed water — more than 3,000 residential and commercial units, according to city water officials — will be exempt from the restrictions.
Facing a gloomy forecast, the council said it could not afford to take baby steps. The drought has been three years in the making.
"We're in a crisis," council chairman Tom Scott said. "And it's going to get worse before it gets better."
A spokeswoman with the Southwest Florida Water Management District knew of no other city in the state that had taken as extreme a step as Tampa.
The change comes as the area's water resources have sunk to alarming lows.
The Tampa Bay Water Reservoir is virtually drained, the Tampa Bay Surface Water Plant was shut down last week, and the Tampa Bay Water and Desalination Plant is producing only 15 million gallons a day, well below its capacity of 25 million gallons.
Hillsborough County is not likely to follow Tampa's lead on tightening restrictions for its water customers. County commissioners have long been reluctant to impose an outright ban on sprinkler use, out of sensitivity to sod farmers and ornamental plant growers in unincorporated areas.
"The concern I have with a total ban on yard watering is that when we do get through this drought, it's going to take two to three times more water to bring the yards back to life," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham.
Other local governments have tried to curb water usage through other means.
Pasco County is considering automatic fines of $42 to residents who water on the wrong days.
St. Petersburg launched night patrols by water cops Monday. In two days, they caught 100 violators — more citations than the city issued in the first six months of daytime patrols, which began in October.
The city also has offered high water users free home consultations and conservation tips.
Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber praised the city's efforts during a presentation to the City Council Thursday.
"Your city has a lot to share with the (Tampa Bay Water) members on how to do the right thing," Seeber said.
City officials said stricter measures have not been completely ruled out. Council member Karl Nurse suggested that water gluttons be required to pay a drought surcharge.
"For the richest people in our area (for whom) money is no object, I would like to see that become an object," said Nurse. "Obviously, the current rates, if you are wealthy enough, mean nothing."
Times staff writers Will Van Sant, Bill Varian and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.