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Water Hogs: During drought, hundreds of Tampa Bay homes guzzled a gallon of water a minute

When Amalie Oil president Harry Barkett plunked down $6.75-million for his Bayshore Boulevard mansion, he picked up 12.5 bathrooms, a pool, a hot tub, an elevator and a deck bigger than some one-bedroom apartments.

But the home included one other item: a huge water bill.

During the first five months of 2017, the 13,000-square foot house used 1.2 million gallons of water, more than any other residence in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater or unincorporated Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Put another way, that's more than 8,000 gallons of water a day, about as much as the average house uses in an entire month.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay area was suffering one of the worst droughts in its history. Just 11.93 inches of rain fell from October through May — the fourth lowest amount ever for that period. The result was brush fires and water restrictions. Gov. Rick Scott had to declare a state of emergency and the National Weather Service termed it a "severe drought.''

Yet hundreds of homes across the region's ritziest neighborhoods averaged more than a gallon of water a minute during the dry months.

In south Tampa, where there's an especially high concentration of water guzzlers, the list of top users reads like a who's-who of socialites and the power lunch crowd. Many live within 10 minutes of each other. Some are neighbors.

Among Tampa's top water users: philanthropist David Straz; Rep. Jackie Toledo (R-Tampa); Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Bryan Glazer; former Lightning stars Dave Andreychuk and Valtteri Filppula; and a number of business executives, including Dental Care Alliance's Steve Matzkin, former Publix CEO Howard Jenkins and Tampa Maid Food's George Watkins.

Of the five houses that used more than 900,000 gallons of water between January and May, four of them are waterfront properties in Tampa south of Kennedy Boulevard. The other is a Tarpon Springs estate owned by Leslie Wagner that used 1.09 million gallons of water during that stretch. That's enough for 64,000 showers, 181,333 dishwasher cycles or to fill 54 swimming pools.

"Certainly, from a standpoint of being a good citizen in the community, you're embarrassed because you're No. 1," said Barkett, whose house also was the region's top water user during a 2008 drought, when it was owned by RV king Don Wallace. "But at the same time we have to protect the property and keep the greenery and landscape in top shape."

The Tampa Bay Times asked Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater for their top 100 residential users of potable water — meaning suitable for drinking — from Jan. 1 through the end of May, when rainfall was especially sparse. Tampa Bay saw just over six inches of rain during those months, less than half the average.

Despite the conditions, as of May 31, 56 households were on pace to eclipse 1 million gallons of water this year. About half were in Tampa. Of the rest, many were houses with Gulf views in west Pinellas County, in areas like East Lake and Belleair.

One street in coastal Pinellas County was especially thirsty. Thirteen houses on Harbor View Lane were among the county's top 100.

At 1.14 million gallons, Straz's house was the second-highest user during those months. The guest house on the property was in the top 30 as well.

The entire property spans nine lots so proportionally, on a per lot basis, it's not that bad, Straz said. A landscaping overhaul planned before the drought required a lot of water, he explained.

"We've done some of those plants that require less water. The flowers are almost totally eliminated," Straz said. "But you can't eliminate everything."

The state classifies a "high-use'' house as one that goes through more than 15,000 gallons of water a month. Across all five jurisdictions, every house in the top 100 easily topped that threshold.

"We always want people to monitor the amount of water they're using and we always want them to be using their best conservation efforts," said Susanna Martinez Tarokh, spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Chuck Weber, director of Tampa's water department, said there's little that can be done about the handful of houses that use a disproportionate share of the city's water supply.

Tampa has a tiered water system, so the more that's used, the more expensive it gets, he noted, and the water department will try to catch people who water their lawn on days they're not supposed to. But the city doesn't monitor houses that continue to keep the spouts on even during a dry spell.

"If folks are abiding with the restrictions and still using the water and willing to pay for it and we have the supply, then there's not really an issue," Weber said. "If we got to the point our water restrictions called for no watering and people were watering, we would respond to that. But we're not surveying water usage at people's homes."

The St. Petersburg water department conducts "water efficiency audits" of its highest users that can identify ways to save and "get them on track again," said Chris Claus, water conservation coordinator for the city.

Just two homes in St. Petersburg eclipsed 300,000 gallons of water during the first five months of the year. Clearwater had three. In Tampa, 78 topped that figure.

"We try to get people in the mode that they're thinking about water conservation all the time," Claus said.

The St. Petersburg water department has 11,000 clients hooked up to reclaimed water, or wastewater that has been scrubbed and is safe for use in irrigation.

Landscaping with reclaimed water is much better for the environment than using potable water, said Jeffrey Cunningham, a professor of water resource engineering at University of South Florida.

"In the winter, it's great if people are using reclaimed water so we don't put a big scuff in our potable water supplies," he said. "Conservation is the best. But after conservation, using reclaimed water is better than using potable water.

Where reclaimed water is available in Tampa — between Kennedy and Bay to Bay boulevards — it's popular, Weber said, but expanding it through the city's existing infrastructure is difficult.

Vinik's home off the Palma Ceia Country Club is within those boundaries. However, every drop of water used by his home during those months — 628,000 gallons — was of drinking quality.

In addition to owning the Lightning, Vinik is also building a $3 billion development in downtown Tampa with Bill Gates' Cascade Investment. Among the goals for the project is creating a greener city.

"We will review our water usage moving forward," Vinik said in a statement. "But until receiving this inquiry, we didn't realize our usage was out of the ordinary as the city has not reached out or indicated in any way that we are non-compliant."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman has embraced reclaimed water at her Davis Islands home.

The property used 435,366 gallons of water for the first five months, but most of that was reclaimed. Among potable water users, Murman's house is not in the top 100. (She also said there was a meter issue on her property.)

At an April board meeting for Tampa Bay Water — of which Murman is a member — the panel was briefed on issues facing water supplies as the region grows.

"I know I'm out watering when I probably shouldn't," Murman said in response, before quickly adding, "Well, I'm using reclaimed."

Murman hopes reclamation projects can extend to everyone. Some municipalities, including Tampa, are considering ways to introduce reclaimed water back into the drinking supply.

Reclaimed water "should be available to everybody and I feel really strongly about that," Murman said. "I use it on my plants. They don't really like it that much, but it's efficient and it's the way we should go."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com or 813-226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

Water Hogs: During drought, hundreds of Tampa Bay homes guzzled a gallon of water a minute 07/24/17 [Last modified: Monday, July 24, 2017 11:30am]
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