The state has virtually no choice but to impose the most severe watering restrictions in history to help the parched Tampa Bay region muddle through until the rainy season. The drought is severe, and the lack of rain has left the region's sustainable water supply projects without the resources they need to function. The alternative to further restrictions — pumping even more from the aquifer — makes no financial or environmental sense. Residents need to conserve more, but area water managers need to realize that credibly pushing conservation goes hand in hand with accountability.
The regional utility, Tampa Bay Water, said Monday it would ask the Southwest Florida Water Management District to tighten watering restrictions later this month. The change could further restrict the hours for outdoor watering, already limited to one day per week. Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new water supply projects in the past decade — largely to cut back on groundwater pumping — Tampa Bay Water expects to exceed its pumping limit as early as next month. Pumping more will compound the damage that the lack of rain has caused to area lakes, rivers and wetlands. It also would mark a setback for the six local governments behind Tampa Bay Water, which have made real progress in conserving the region's water resources.
The new supply projects were the right way to go to reduce the region's reliance on pumping. But the flip side of designing a system that takes advantage of Florida's rainy season is that the whole strategy collapses during a drought. What's more, the water projects are designed to work in concert with each other, with each producing a portion of the region's daily water needs. When one is sidelined by engineering problems, as occurred with the seawater desalination plant and as is now occurring with the 15 billion-gallon reservoir, then the strategy is undermined. The drought and the cracks in the reservoir wall could force an increase in pumping for another year or more. The environmental and economic costs will continue to grow.
Residents should be implored to conserve water, especially when it comes to watering their lawns. But the public needs to hear more than regular appeals for money and conservation. Taxpayers have responded to every drought and financial crisis Tampa Bay Water has faced. They accepted watering restrictions. They stuck with the long-troubled desalination plant. They have no choice but to fix the reservoir, and to curb their water use even further. At some point, they need to hear that Tampa Bay Water will do a better job with the tools it has been given; that it will better manage its projects, keep them on budget and anticipate trouble before it occurs. The utility has a new general manager, and its leadership should recognize that this sense of accountability is critical if Tampa Bay Water is to have public support for supply projects in the future.