When it comes to water conservation, the best education is a costly education, Pasco commissioners decided Tuesday by quadrupling the penalty for illegal lawn watering.
The former penalty — $30 plus a $12 administration fee — was the lowest assessed by the six member governments that make up Tampa Bay Water. Pasco County citations now carry a $130 fine. No warnings will be issued.
It is hardly ground-breaking territory. By bumping up the fine, the county now treats illegal watering the same as other so-called Class II ordinance violations — having an unlicensed dog, disobeying boat speed limits or improperly storing an RV, boat or trailer.
Increasing the fine is the correct move in this extended drought. Tampa Bay Water's 15 billion-gallon reservoir has gone dry, and the regional utility projects it will exceed its limits on groundwater pumping this month. It's an unwanted reminder for local residents who lived through the parochial water wars of the 1980s and '90s when over-pumping of well fields brought dry lakes and damaged wetlands in central Pasco and northern Hillsborough counties.
Clearly, the commission's action is warranted. Despite the county mailing letters to nearly 900 heavy water users, hanging warnings on doorknobs, sending notices in water bills, contacting 255 homeowner associations, and using flashing roadside signs, some members of the public remain ignorant of or unconcerned about restrictions on landscape irrigation.
Some examples: the Times recently reported two of the biggest residential water users in the Tampa Bay region are in Land O'Lakes, including a model home in the Dupree Lakes subdivision off Ehren Cutoff and the home of professional wrestler John Cena, both of which used more than 1 million gallons of water in 2008.
Likewise, Pasco County code enforcement officers and utility workers issued more than 220 citations for illegal watering over the past two weekends and more than 500 tickets so far in March. Homeowners may water their lawns once a week according to the last number of their street address. Watering is prohibited on weekends and between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
To better combat scofflaws watering at odd hours, the county is using flex time to begin work shifts at 3 in the morning and paying overtime to have personnel working on weekends. Next month, the county will train the Pasco Sheriff's Office civilian volunteers in another attempt to boost enforcement.
The new fine schedule comes just two months after Commissioner Jack Mariano suggested the $42 cost assessed on a first-time violator was excessive. Mariano correctly retreated from that logic Tuesday and said he was encouraged by the public education efforts by the county utilities staff that began last fall.
Still, Commissioner Ted Schrader wondered about going one more step and assessing a drought surcharge as may be called for by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
''That's how you're going to get some attention, through their utility bills,'' Schrader said.
We don't disagree. Already, the county charges a higher water rate for residential customers using more than 15,000 gallons a month. But the chance at greater leadership evaporated. The county failed to join the city of Tampa in banning the use of automatic sprinklers. Commissioners also did little more than talk about a surcharge after staff members said they could not differentiate between customers who use excessive water for irrigation and large families with high water use for bathing and laundry.
It was a missed opportunity. The county utility system has more than 92,000 customers, and more than half the water used each month goes toward outdoor uses. Tougher standards on above-ground water use now are preferable to the prospect of renewed environmental damage later on from excessive groundwater pumping.