Peak demand and repairs are causing some in the citywho paid for unlimited water to get none at all.
Every day for the past week, the city's reclaimed water system has virtually shut down under peak demand.
"We're having a time maintaining pressure," city Public Utilities Director William Johnson said Monday.
As residents and businesses turn on their lawn sprinklers around dawn and dusk each day, the pressure has fallen below 10 pounds per square inch, and all the way to zero Friday and May 16.
To run a typical lawn sprinkler system, the city's pressure needs to stay above 40 pounds per square inch. The pressure drop is worst far away from treatment plants, the source of reclaimed water.
Sprinkler heads designed to send water 40 feet may send it only a few feet, turning yards into small circles of green grass surrounded by scorched earth. When pressure drops too low, sprinkler heads don't pop up from the ground at all.
"Where it's not getting water that dirt is just as dry as the Sahara Desert," said Chester Pierscionek, 82, of the Harris Park neighborhood. "I've lived in this house for 32 years, and I've been in the reclaimed water system since they put the pipe across the street about 10 years ago. I've had no problem until now."
Commercial customers said the system failure has proved costly.
"We've already lost a lot of landscape," said Judy Healey, leasing manager of the 80-acre Koger Center office park south of Gandy Boulevard between Fourth and Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) streets, which has all but lost reclaimed water service. "We're going to be pulling out a lot of bushes. They've got to come up with some answer."
In March, Mayor David Fischer's staff said they saw this problem coming and proposed limiting use of reclaimed water to certain days, as government has limited irrigation with shallow-well and drinkable water.
Reclaimed water users, who pay a flat fee for unlimited use, were irate and opposed the plan.
They said that if the city was running out of recycled water to distribute, it had foolishly connected too many residents to the system.
City Council members, saying there was no evidence reclaimed water was in short supply, voted down mandatory limits, asking instead for voluntary conservation.
Now, dozens of reclaimed water customers are again calling City Hall because they have lost their ability to water whenever they like, after all.
"The system becomes self-governing in that respect," Johnson said ruefully Monday.
The city's reclaimed water system sends highly treated wastewater back to neighborhoods for irrigation.
But as demand has risen during this drought, one of the city's plants, at Albert Whitted Airport, has not been contributing, Johnson acknowledged. The plant is being rewired, and with some machines out of service, the plant is not producing water clean enough to pipe into the system, he said.
That means about 6-million gallons of water per day is being flushed into the city's disposal wells. The other plants produce 25-million gallons per day, slightly less than residents demand. The repairs will not likely be done before the drought ends, Johnson said.
Fischer noted that reclaimed water usage dropped in early April after the City Council called for conservation. Monday, he renewed the call.
"If people on reclaimed water would water once a day, 20 minutes per section, we'd be okay," he said. "They may be watering longer than they need to. When we first asked for voluntary restrictions, the usage did fall."
He said he will not ask the City Council to reconsider a mandatory restriction, because he expects the rainy season will arrive before the council could pass one.
"We may be stuck with what we've got," he said.