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Water rules confound experts, too

And you thought you were confused by the ever-shifting restrictions on the outdoor use of water.

It turns out even the public officials responsible for getting the message to you and enforcing the limits don't all know which end is up.

The city of St. Petersburg recently sent out information in monthly water bills indicating residents could water on one designated day a week, morning and evening.

Not true.

The emergency order invoked late last month by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, states there are morning hours and evening hours for watering, and you may water a specific area in the morning or the evening, but only once on your specified day.

"There definitely is some confusion about that," said Patty Anderson of the St. Petersburg Utilities Department.

Late Thursday, officials were scrambling to find a way to clear up the confusion. The same dilemma existed in Tampa. And in Hillsborough and Hernando counties, the water police say they understood the rule but are scratching their heads about how to enforce it.

"There is definitely that little word "or' in the Swiftmud order," Anderson said. "We're trying to write some sort of statement clearing it up for everyone."

India Williams, consumer affairs manager for the Tampa Water Department, counted herself among the confused Thursday.

"Somehow, the "or' didn't stick in my brain," Williams said. "We encourage people to water each zone of their lawn once and only once on their designated day during the designated hours. The next time we address watering restrictions, we should clarify the requirements."

Public officials weren't the only ones confused. In reporting on Swiftmud's order, the St. Petersburg Times said watering was legal morning and evening.

Doug Bramlett, utilities director for Pasco County, said county lawyers looked at the Swiftmud order, and it was clear to them.

"When we wrote our own order, we said "and,' but it was clear Swiftmud was saying "or,' and that's what we're enforcing," Bramlett said.

Nor was there confusion among Pinellas County or Citrus County water regulators.

But in St. Petersburg, "and" is going to mean "or" for the time being. City code specifies that lawns can be watered on one designated day a week between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.

"We don't have any plans to go in and change city code," Anderson said, "but if we see a property where they're watering in the morning and the same area in the evening, we will use enforcement. You don't need to water the same area twice in a day. Regardless of what the code says, it isn't what we meant."

Although there is that little and/or problem, St. Petersburg's hours of legal watering are even more restrictive than Swiftmud's. St. Petersburg offers residents two four-hour windows for watering. Swiftmud offers a 10-hour window and an eight-hour window: midnight to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 11:59 p.m.

Since St. Petersburg's rules are tougher, they would take precedence, but the city cannot use its restrictions to justify allowing residents to water the same lawn twice in a single day.

Adding to the confusion is the interpretation for people with automatic sprinkler systems that work on multiple zones. If these users cannot complete all zones within the morning window, the watering may be completed in the evening, but not repeated.

Norman Davis, Hillsborough County's water conservation manager, says he understands the Swiftmud order but finds it hard to enforce.

"To write a citation, we have to witness a violation," Davis said. "That means we would have to see a piece of property being watered in the morning and then recognize it when it is watered again in the evening. Very tough."

In Hernando County, code enforcement director Frank McDowell says he doesn't have the personnel to make sure people don't cheat and water twice on their designated day.

"What we're telling people is that Swiftmud says they can put three-fourths of an inch of water on their lawns once a week," McDowell said. "We suggest they put an empty tuna fish can in the yard, and when it gets to three-fourths of an inch, they're done. But if they want to put down a half inch in the morning and a quarter inch at night, I think they would be legal."

The latest round of restrictions is temporary and will expire June 30, after which everyone will have to figure things out all over again.