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Pasco County Commission fails to lead in water conservation

Tuesday afternoon, the head of the regional water district called the Pasco County Commission the "absolute leader in water issues.'' Commissioners then did their best to prove him wrong.

For the second time in a month, commissioners failed to emphasize aggressive, long-term water conservation even though their regional water partners in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Hillsborough County are preparing to push such a strategy through higher rates for big users, known as a drought surcharge.

Pasco's response to the Southwest Florida Water Management District request to do likewise? Let's see if somebody else assumes the leadership role.

It is disappointing. A month ago commissioners agreed to quadruple the fine for property owners for violating the once-a-week watering restrictions after learning Pasco assessed the lowest penalties in the area.

At the time, the commission discussed, but didn't consider seriously, the idea of a surcharge on Pasco Utilities' heaviest users after county staffers pooh-poohed the notion.

They repeated the inactivity Tuesday afternoon despite hearing from the David Moore, executive director of Southwest Florida Water Management District, and his Tampa Bay Water counterpart, Gerald Seeber, about the three-year drought conditions that are triggering excessive water pumping in Pasco County. Though less water is coming from beneath Pasco than a decade ago, the well fields here still account for nearly half the groundwater Tampa Bay Water uses to serve more than 2 million area residents. The regional utility and the water district both project groundwater pumping to grow to 150 to 170 million gallons a day before the rainy season begins in June, despite permits limiting daily withdrawals to 90 million gallons.

The permit violation could trigger up to $1 million penalty against Tampa Bay Water, which gets its money from Pasco County, the city of New Port Richey and four other member governments.

In other words, Pasco's water users are going to help pay for the over-pumping anyway. That should be incentive enough to add a surcharge, assessing even higher rates on Pasco's thirstiest customers.

And, as Times staff writer Lisa Buie reported, there are a lot of water hogs to be targeted. Nearly 10 percent of the county's 92,000 active customers use more than 15,000 gallons of water monthly, the amount at which the county's highest water charge activates. The average household use in Pasco last year was less than 7,000 gallons a month.

Homeowner narcissism, ignorance or even the excuses of broken meters and/or leaks are only part of the trouble. A change in public attitude is needed as attested to by the problematic neighborhood deed restrictions dictating thirsty St. Augustine grass on large lots. On American Avenue in the Lake Jovita development in San Antonio, for instance, 42 of the 53 homeowners are on the water hog list. Obviously, local governments must do more to encourage or mandate drought-resistant landscape.

In the meantime, adding a surcharge should become a permanent fixture in long-term conservation strategy. Moore said other localities are researching rate increases of 50 to 100 percent on their biggest residential consumers. Pasco's currently charges $2.30 per 1,000 gallons for low users but the price eventually doubles after a customer exceeds 15,000 gallons.

Or, Pasco could consider the strategy adopted in Hernando, which has a second, higher set of rates that becomes effective when the water management district declares a water shortage.

County staffers argue that fairness is an issue. County meters cannot distinguish between a large family using water for laundry and bathing or a retired couple using thousands of gallons of water on lush landscaping. And, there are 17 other water franchises serving portions of the county. Still, those are excuses that shouldn't derail environmental stewardship.

Pasco County should lead on water conservation, not wait around to see what everybody else is going to do.

Pasco County Commission fails to lead in water conservation 04/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 21, 2009 6:29pm]
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