A March 23 St. Petersburg Times editorial called for the Southwest Florida Water Management District to make its water shortage restrictions uniform throughout its 16 counties. While every county in our district is facing impacts from the drought and all are under the most severe restrictions in the state, not all counties have the same water shortage conditions. District actions must reflect the actual situations. A districtwide, one-size-fits-all water shortage order may be easier to communicate, but such an action would fail any credibility test if the circumstances don't warrant the action.
The area serviced by Tampa Bay Water is facing the biggest water shortage challenge. The lack of river flows caused by the drought combined with the emptying of the Bill Young Reservoir is putting more pressure on already stressed groundwater sources. Tampa Bay Water has announced that it expects to exceed its permitted groundwater quantities until at least the summer rainfalls return to make up for reductions in available surface water.
But even within Tampa Bay Water's jurisdiction, not all its member governments have the exact same conditions. The city of Tampa made significant news recently when it banned its utility customers from using automatic sprinklers on their lawns.
Tampa gets most of its water from the Hillsborough River, which is running extremely low. Although it purchases water from Tampa Bay Water as needed, the size of its transmission pipes limits how much water the city can accept from the regional wholesaler. Unlike Tampa Bay Water, which won't run out of water but could be forced to temporarily exceed its groundwater pumping limits, Tampa would be significantly challenged to meet its needs if the river can't provide sufficient quantities. The other member governments have sufficient transmission lines to accept enough water from Tampa Bay Water to meet their needs.
It's important that local governments have the flexibility to address unique conditions. Tampa's actions regarding lawn watering reflected the city's heightened water shortage.
In October, the district addressed the Tampa Bay region's issues by declaring a Phase 3 Water Shortage, one step short of our most severe restrictions. The Phase 3 order included one-day watering per week, mandatory citations for first-time offenders, reduced hours for lawn irrigation, reduced hours for watering shrubs and trees, reduced watering for new lawn establishment, four-hour maximum for water fountains and a limit of once-per-week residential car washing. The order also required local utilities to enhance water conservation messaging, conduct a utility audit if one had not been done in two years, limit unattended line flushing, accelerate conservation efforts and report monthly to the district regarding their efforts.
Tampa Bay Water last month asked our Governing Board to declare a Phase 4 or critical water shortage, the highest level we have. In evaluating the request, it became clear that the Tampa Bay region had achieved less than half of the 10 percent water savings anticipated under our Phase 3 restrictions. While we applauded the many residents who had done their part to follow the rules and conserve, it was clear that a significant number of people were not complying.
Enacting a Phase 4 Water Shortage last month might have been a good public relations move, but would have been premature and ineffective as long as substantial segments of the public were not complying with the existing Phase 3 restrictions. Instead, the board demonstrated the necessary leadership by directing governments in the Tampa Bay area to step up their conservation and enforcement efforts, to focus specific outreach to their high-end water users, to consider drought surcharges to encourage high-end water users to reduce their use and availability fees for residents who have access to reclaimed water but haven't connected to the system, and to hold a drought summit.
So what's happened in the last month? Virtually every news outlet in the Tampa Bay area has had extensive coverage of stepped-up enforcement of restrictions, conservation efforts and the amount of water consumed by high-end water users. The public awareness and involvement in the situation has increased dramatically. System pressures have been reduced where feasible as requested by the district. Drought surcharges and reclaimed water availability fees are being discussed, and a summit is being planned for early May.
On March 31, the district Governing Board will consider enacting Phase 4 restrictions for customers of the local governments receiving water from Tampa Bay Water. In light of the stepped up conservation efforts by local governments, district staff believes these restrictions are now warranted and will be enforced in a meaningful way to reflect the actual conditions in the region.
David L. Moore is executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.