Here's a bulletin: We're in a drought. The lack of significant rainfall should make it fairly obvious. Yet, somehow, amid the presidential election, the holidays, the inauguration, the economic stimulus package, the Super Bowl and any other reason you can think of, this little fact faded from the public's attention. Add Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano to the list of the absent-minded.
Tuesday, he asked at a public meeting why the county code enforcement officers didn't offer first-time warnings to people apprehended violating the once-a-week restriction on lawn watering. The financial penalty to first-time offenders is $42 and Mariano calculated that amount as too steep amid a down economy.
At another time, Mariano's inquiry on behalf of a constituent might have more legitimacy. But in October, the Southwest Florida Water Management District adopted tougher water restrictions and the courtesy warnings disappeared. Local governments are mandated to issue citations. Pasco even deputized its utility workers so it had more personnel to check for violators during overnight and early-morning hours.
"We have to make people aware that this is a real problem,'' said Michael Molligan, the water district's communications director.
Current restrictions limit lawn watering to once a week and it is prohibited between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. That applies to hand watering of plants as well. For specific watering days and a list of all restrictions see the water district's Web site at www.swfwmd.state.fl.us.
So far, there has been little respite. Tampa Bay Water, the regional water supplier to Pasco County, New Port Richey and four other governments, is seeking even tougher restrictions from the district that could limit pressure washing, car washing and other outdoor water uses. The water district has yet to agree to that request.
The numbers explain the urgency. Tampa Bay Water, permitted to pump an annual average of 90 million gallons of water daily from the well fields in Pasco and Hillsborough counties, is poised to exceed that limit next month and to continue overpumping until June. The extended drought — more than two years of below-normal rainfall — has meant less water available from surface water sources and from the new reservoir in southern Hillsborough County that did not fill to capacity because of cracking problems.
The pumping limit is mandated in the 1998 agreement that created Tampa Bay Water, which ended years of parochial feuding and curbed groundwater withdrawals that had lowered lake levels and damaged wetlands in Pasco and northern Hillsborough. More than 12,200 acres of wetlands, mostly in Pasco, are not expected to fully recover, making it incumbent on residents here to help mitigate future groundwater pumping demands.
Instead of offering amnesty to first-time water violators, the county and district are correct to try to curb consumption. Outdoor use accounts for half of all the water consumed by the public.
For the public, it could mean putting off new landscape until June, using drought-tolerant plants, watering wisely and taking advantage of incentives to install low-flow toilets — something, to his credit, that also is championed by Mariano.
It also must be accompanied by a change in attitude. The sense of entitlement, even during the dry season, to a heavily-watered, lush green lawn should become a thing of the past. Learning and following the watering restrictions is still the easiest to avoid a $42 citation.