TAMPA — Facing what may become the worst drought on record, the Tampa City Council on Thursday adopted the toughest water restrictions in the state.
By a 5-1 vote, the council banned the use of lawn sprinklers — a move that forces hand-watering of lawns but should save up to 30 million gallons of water a week. The rules, which take effect April 3, apply to residences, businesses and city government.
The restrictions also extend to homeowners associations, which are known for an aversion to brown grass.
"The need to provide people with drinking water supersedes the desire for people to irrigate their lawns," City Attorney Chip Fletcher said.
About 140,000 Tampa water customers, including those who live in unincorporated Hillsborough County, will face stiff penalties for breaking the rules.
First-time violators will have to pay $100. A second offense will cost $200. A third infraction will result in a $450 fee and a mandatory court appearance.
Some 3,000 homes and businesses that use reclaimed water will be exempt from the restrictions.
When the rules take effect, lawn and plant watering will still be allowed. The difference: It will have to be done with a hose that has a shutoff nozzle.
"Before, there were irrigation systems that went off, automatically in some cases, whether it rained or it didn't rain," city water director Brad Baird said. "If you are interested in protecting your investment, if you're serious about it, you will get out and hand-water it."
No other Florida city has taken Tampa's extreme step, a Southwest Florida Water Management District official said.
"I'm not aware of any other municipalities that are considering tougher restrictions right now," Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said.
The council could have opted for a less stringent approach. Mayor Pam Iorio recommended a two-step plan that would have first reduced sprinkler use to twice a month. If conditions worsened, stricter guidelines would have been phased in.
"The council jumped to the ultimate step," said council member John Dingfelder, the lone dissenting vote and a supporter of the mayor's proposal. "I think it's moving too fast."
Facing a gloomy forecast, the council said it had no other choice. 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."
Indeed, the picture that city water officials painted Thursday was bleak: Tampa Bay Water's reservoir is drained, and its desalination plant is currently underproducing by 10 million gallons a day. The Hillsborough River is flowing at near-record lows.
Homeowner Gary Gunter wishes Tampa hadn't taken such a drastic step and had just enforced its current regulations more aggressively.
"I suppose my lawn will die," said Gunter, who lives in New Tampa's deed-restricted West Meadows community. "We might as well take pictures of Las Vegas and put rocks in our yards."
Hillsborough County isn't likely to follow Tampa's lead on tightening water restrictions.
"The concern I have with a total ban on yard (sprinklers) 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.
Tampa has two weeks to educate water users about the new guidelines. Water customers can expect mailings before April 3.
"This is about public health," said Steve Daignault, Tampa's utilities administrator. "This is about having water for drinking, cleaning, eating."
Times staff writers Bill Varian and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5303.
Here's how Tampa's new water rules will affect various activities:
Can I still install sod?
Yes, but you may water it only by hand once a week.
How do I report watering violations or inquire about getting reclaimed water service?
Call 813-274-8036 to report watering violations. For reclaimed water inquiries, call 813-282-7827.
I just put fertilizer or insecticide on the lawn. Am I allowed to water it in?
Yes, but you may water only by hand on the allowed day.
What about my swimming pool?
Pools without a filter and a recirculating system cannot be filled.
Can I wash my car or pressure-clean my house and sidewalk?
Car washing is allowed once a week on the specified watering day. Pressure washing of buildings is allowed, but pressure washing of sidewalks and driveways is not.