NEW PORT RICHEY — The Southwest Florida Water Management District is pulling funding from a program that helps homeowners save on their water bills while also offering other conservation tips.
The district, commonly known as Swiftmud, says the push to cut funding to the Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program is meant to save money and bring more resources in-house. Much of the program's information is already available online, Swiftmud says.
But the move has surprised local officials and left many wondering why the district would withdraw its support when millions of gallons of water are being conserved yearly.
Just in Hillsborough, the program is saving about 45 million gallons a year, said Stephen Gran, who heads Hillsborough County's extension service. In Pasco, the program saves millions yearly, as well, though officials there haven't tallied the final numbers.
"My goal is to save 25 million gallons a year," said Chris Dewey, Pasco's coordinator.
Extension services rely on grants from a combination of agencies, including Tampa Bay Water, to run the conservation effort. Under the program, experts visit homeowners and neighborhood associations to show strategies to cut their water usage and help them save money. The program operates in 11 counties, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco.
Swiftmud is just one agency that provides funding, but the extension services say its support is critical to keep the program coordinators in the field meeting with homeowners.
Dewey meets with homeowners and associations about 20 to 25 times a month, said BJ Jarvis, director of the Pasco extension service. In addition to water-saving tips, he teaches them about drought-tolerant species and fertilizer and pesticide use.
Without the Swiftmud funding, she said, the extension service and others like it would be left scrambling to keep the program afloat. Pasco officials recently sent a letter to Swiftmud asking for a one-year reprieve. The agency hasn't responded.
Swiftmud said it doesn't dispute the program's importance and says that many of its water-saving tips are already available on its website. Eliminating support to the 11 Florida-Friendly programs would save Swiftmud about $500,000 a year. It would also allow it to pour more resources into its own water-saving program called Florida Water Star.
"This decision is not about whether or not we support the program," Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said. "It's about the funding and managing of all those contracts at the local level. With these being local positions we felt that it was more appropriate for these to operate at a county level and to put our resources elsewhere into a regional program."
Extension services said they were notified about a week ago that Swiftmud was pulling funding for the 2014 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. Because they were notified so late in the year, they say they don't have time to find other funding sources before the new year starts.
Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala said losing the coordinator position would be a terrible blow as the program has been popular among county residents.
"It's always been one of the things that we did well together with Swiftmud," she said. "It's in their best interest to tout conservation and water-savings strategies and the friendly landscaping is a part of it."
Staff writer Anna Phillips contributed to this article. Rich Shopes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.