This morning's expected rain will provide welcome, if short-lived, relief from the drought. But after it passes, Tampa Bay still will have critically short water supplies with two months to go before the rainy season. It's time to curb consumption on a broad front by further restricting watering and charging high water users a premium.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District has lost valuable time. The regional water supply authority, Tampa Bay Water, asked Swiftmud on Feb. 2 to raise the restrictions to Phase 4 from Phase 3. Such a change would further curtail lawn watering and other outdoor uses, such as car wash fundraisers, pressure-washing and ornamental fountains. But Swiftmud was more concerned about the landscaping industry — even though it was apparent the region would be forced to tighten restrictions in a matter of weeks. Instead, Swiftmud adopted baby steps, including calling for restaurants to serve water only on request. To put that potential savings into perspective, it would take 880 million 8-ounce glasses of water to offset one day's worth of outdoor watering in the region.
The crisis is here. There is no significant rain in sight. Tampa Bay Water's 15-billion gallon reservoir is dry and its desalination plant, which is producing 16 to 19 million gallons a day, will not operate at its full capacity of 25 million gallons until May. The water authority has alerted Swiftmud that it will need to pump an average of more than 90 million gallons of groundwater a day — the permitted level that is considered the maximum sustainable. The utility expects to pump 100 million gallons a day this month, 140 million in April and 160 million in May. Officials expect the annual average to jump to 110 million gallons a day. That increase is a step back for a region that has spent a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to broaden water sources and reduce reliance on groundwater pumping.
Swiftmud needs to impose tighter watering restrictions at its next meeting March 31. It needs to curtail the hours people may water their lawns once a week and ban pressure-washing, the use of fountains, car washing and "establishment periods" that allow for extra watering of new landscaping.
But local governments also need to encourage conservation by imposing drought surcharges on heavy water users. Only three local governments in Swiftmud's 16-county service area — Hernando and Charlotte counties and the coastal community of Englewood — impose a surcharge on water hogs. It isn't fair to restrict homeowners and aggressively ticket average water users and still allow those who can afford to pay to waste this precious resource.
Swiftmud should be prepared to go further and impose an all-out ban on outdoor watering if the Phase 4 restrictions do not seriously curb consumption. That move would be drastic, but so is returning to groundwater pumping at levels not seen in a decade.
The area's rivers and lakes are drying up just as the region's water utility is forced to pump more groundwater. Swiftmud and other government agencies cannot make it rain, but they can do more to save the water we have. They need to impose restrictions that save water in the immediate term and change public attitudes about consumption in the long run.