Tampa gets it. The City Council passed an emergency ordinance Thursday outlawing the use of lawn sprinklers. Pinellas gets it. The County Commission passed an ordinance last week limiting the use of reclaimed water for outdoor irrigation. Local governments are acting because the Southwest Florida Water Management District has not put meaningful watering restrictions in place to respond to the drought. Swiftmud should get serious when its governing board meets March 31, and it should bring some uniformity to the water restrictions of the 16 counties it serves.
The Tampa City Council voted 5-1 to ban outdoor watering through the use of sprinkler systems. When the change takes effect April 3, residents will be allowed to water lawns by hand only and plants only by hand or through microirrigation systems.
Council members showed leadership by agreeing almost universally to impose the most restrictive watering rules in the region. The flow of the city's main water source, the Hillsborough River, is at its second lowest point in recorded history. Officials say up to half the water consumed across Tampa Bay ends up on lawns; with the sprinkling ban, Tampa hopes to save 20 to 30 million gallons of water weekly. This will be a good test to evaluate the accuracy of those calculations.
The council acted on the same day the St. Petersburg Times reported that at least 35 homes across the region had each consumed at least 1 million gallons of water last year. RV king Don Wallace of Tampa was the biggest water user in the bay area, consuming more than 6 million gallons of water at his Bayshore Boulevard home, more than 66 times that of the average household. Wallace, for his part, suspects a leak. But it is clear water managers and local governments need to do more to force conservation.
Swiftmud needs to impose tighter restrictions that curtail outdoor water use at least by half. Options include bans on car washes, pressure washing, the use of outdoor fountains and grace periods to establish new landscaping. And the agency should standardize restrictions in its 16-county area. Pinellas County, for example, limits reclaimed water use; St. Petersburg does not. Likewise, Tampa bars the use of decorative fountains and most car-wash fundraisers, but both practices are allowed in unincorporated Hillsborough County. The varying rules are confusing and arbitrary to the point they undermine public support for conservation.
The immediate challenge for Swiftmud and local governments is to responsibly address the drought. But the larger challenge is to change public attitudes and government policies that encourage wasteful consumption in normal times.