Three years into the drought, one thing is clear: The need for the Tampa Bay area to pump more groundwater would not have been as dire had area governments worked together and more quickly to conserve the region's water resources.
So with lawns dying and landscaping jobs disappearing, pumping on the rise and no rain in sight, it is a relief that area leaders finally will meet Tuesday to collectively address the problem. Officials need to leave the summit with a new way of thinking about the role conservation and regional cooperation must play.
The summit follows the Southwest Florida Water Management District's decision in March to impose the tightest watering restrictions ever. Hosted by the regional water supplier, Tampa Bay Water, the discussion will examine where water supplies stand, what weather patterns are expected and further options for reducing consumer demand.
This is an opportunity for governments in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco to both address the current drought and prepare for the next one. The water restrictions Swiftmud and local governments in its service area imposed are saving tens of millions of gallons of water. But officials still expect to pump more than the permitted average daily limit of 90 million gallons.
Area cities and counties need to examine what restrictions should remain on the books after the rainy season begins. The goal here is to create a public mindset about conservation as much as saving water itself. Governments should agree to impose a surcharge on water hogs and use the proceeds in part to expand the reclaimed system. The city of Tampa, for example, dumps tens of millions of gallons of reclaimed water into the bay because it cannot get it to its customers. Only 6 percent of Tampa's water customers have access to reclaimed, and of those, only one in three is hooked up.
The region also needs to bring some uniformity to watering restrictions. It makes no sense for residents within the same county to face different watering restrictions depending on the jurisdiction that sells the water. The political walls that govern water distribution are about as artificial as those that govern air. The Tampa Bay region recognized as much when it created a three-county water cooperative.
Tuesday's summit should be the start of regular meetings in the region to address broader issues. How do we change land-use patterns to conserve water? What can governments do to change the fact that nearly half of all water consumption is used for lawns and landscaping? What water supply projects, such as a second reservoir, should be pursued? The drought has forced this discussion, and the region is responding to the crisis. But more has to be done to cope with the current drought and to prepare for the future.