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Hernando may push rain device

Hernando County is tossing around an idea that could save the county millions of gallons of water a year and save homeowners some money on their water and electric bills.

On Thursday, Assistant Utilities Director Kay Adams met with representatives from local irrigation businesses. They want to start a policy that would offer residents rebates for installing gadgets that would cut down on the amount of water used to irrigate lawns.

These gadgets, called rain sensors, override timed irrigation systems when adequate moisture is present.

Adams says residents may have good intentions about conserving water, but they may not know how much they need without the device.

"Most people want to conserve water and some want to reduce their water bill. We're not approaching this as a pocketbook issue, but an environmental one," she said. "I think people are more aware (of the need for water conservation) now than before in Hernando County."

Costs vary, but Maurice Lubee, owner of Lubee's Spring Hill Irrigation Inc., said he charges $22.50 for the sensor, plus $28 for installation.

To make the deal more affordable, Adams will ask the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, for a grant. Swiftmud would pay half of a resident's rebate.

The remaining cost would be paid by the county or a homeowner's utility company. The total savings for residents could be up to $50.

The proposal will target some of the 12,608 Hernando homeowners who have been issued in-ground irrigation permits since 1983. Although the development department has no figures on the number who currently have rain sensors or automatic systems, Adams says if just half of the permit holders participate, the plan will be a success.

She based the need for refurbishing some systems on a Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department projection for 1995 that estimated if 600 homes were fitted with rain sensors, 11.5-million gallons of water could be saved annually. Adams said that was a "very conservative" figure.

"It doesn't hurt to use a resource wisely," Adams said. "And water is a resource. . . . If citizens learn to use water, then we can all have our cake and eat it, too."

In May 1991, state law made it mandatory to equip an automatic sprinkler system with a rain sensor. Lubee, an irrigation business owner, said rain sensors have become popular only in the last few years and estimates that 3,000 homeowners own one.

George Rodriguez, deputy building official for the Development Department, said that because Swiftmud can't enforce the law, the statute was not followed. To enforce the statute, the requirement must be in the county codes.

He plans to have the mandate approved by the County Commission and included in county codes by Jan. 1.

John Walkinshaw, Swiftmud spokesman, said about 50 percent of total water usage for Hernando County is outside the home, which includes water for washing cars and for irrigation.

Most of the use, though, is for watering lawns, he said. At an average of 94,113 gallons used per day in the county, 50 percent adds up quickly, he said.

Lubee has his concerns with the program.

Installing rain gauges is a great idea because it will save water, but government agencies should not offer rebates to improve certain people's private property, he said.

"I think the focus of the program should really be requiring people to have rain sensors, regardless of when their sprinkler system was installed," Lubee said. "Why should my customers help pay for this when they already have them? I'm in favor of rain sensors. It's just a question of who pays for it."