The three-year-old drought is worsening. The rainy season is months away. Two rivers that supply the region with drinking water, the Hillsborough and the Alafia, are moving at 2 percent of their normal flow. The 15-billion-gallon reservoir operated by the regional water utility, Tampa Bay Water, is down to 500 million gallons, or enough for 20 days. Water managers' solution? They want restaurants to stop serving water unless a customer asks for it and revisit the problem later. It's a pitiful response from regulators who have spent months convincing customers that Tampa Bay is in a severe drought but who now fail to provide a responsible conservation plan.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District did adopt other measures last week besides urging restaurants to curtail water use. Swiftmud, as the agency is known, urged local governments in its 16-county area to impose a surcharge on water hogs (three already do) and to expand the availability of reclaimed water for irrigation purposes. But Swiftmud held off from further restricting water use in a meaningful way. It argued that raising restrictions to Phase 4 from the current Phase 3 might scare residents away from landscaping their homes, dealing a further financial blow to sod farmers, nurseries and the lawn care industry.
Officials are right that they could save millions of additional gallons of water daily if consumers were more religious about adhering to the Phase 3 restrictions already in effect. But the issue should not be a choice between Phase 3 and 4. Nor need it be a battle over agriculture. Swiftmud needs to tailor restrictions that work and address the long-term and immediate crises.
There is no reason for the time being, for example, to allow once-a-week car washing, or the use of outdoor fountains. Swiftmud still has room to cut back on the hours landowners may water their lawns and on the time they have to establish new plants without dealing a death knell to landscaping or the landscaping industry.
The local governments in Swiftmud's service area have been proactive on enforcement, but they need to do more than write tickets. The district should help cities and counties expand their outreach efforts, including programs that provide low-flow toilets and shower heads. Local governments need to encourage people to move away from water-heavy landscaping. It makes no sense to offer people who plant sod a waiver on watering rules but not offer similar incentives, including impact fee breaks, to developers who install Florida-friendly landscaping. At a very minimum, agencies need to start encouraging landowners to plant more drought-tolerant turf.
The recession has given the region a break from madcap growth and an opportunity to step back and impose sensible water use regulations, drought or not. Outdoor watering restrictions and a crackdown on water hogs have eased the drought's impact. But the crisis has grown more severe and it is time to ramp up the response. Swiftmud needs to take the lead and prod local governments to make better use of the area's water resources.