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County to raise water fines

Pasco will crack down on watering but also will look at total water usage.

Faced with a state order to reduce water consumption by 5 percent, Pasco County plans to double fines for lawn watering scofflaws.

County officials said first-time offenders will pay between $50 and $80 for illegal watering, up from the current $30.

And sprinkling under cover of darkness will no longer escape the detection of code enforcement officers, County Administrator John Gallagher said. Neighborhood checks will begin as early as 4 a.m.

Pasco is reacting to an emergency order proposed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The order mandates stricter water conservation from Tampa Bay Water, the regional water agency, of which Pasco is a member.

Tampa Bay Water seeks Swiftmud's approval to breach an agreement that caps ground water pumping, most of it from Pasco well fields, at 158-million gallons a day.

The water agency needs the extra water to supply the city of Tampa, whose main water source, the Hillsborough River, is running dry from lack of rain.

Swiftmud's emergency order, which its board of governors could approve as early as Tuesday, requires Tampa Bay Water's member governments to, among other things, enforce landscape irrigation restrictions and set higher rates for heavy users.

On Tuesday, Pasco commissioners hired a consultant to help set punitive water rates for customers using perhaps as little as 10,000 gallons or 15,000 gallons per month.

The consultant will need about 90 days to complete his work. That exposes the county to violating Swiftmud's order that counties approve higher rates within 30 days.

"We're going to send them a letter and see if they'll give us some latitude," Gallagher said.

The new rates will work in tandem with the county's plan to increase fines for households that water on days other than the one day a week assigned to them.

Commissioners said lawn watering is the single biggest waste of water, compared with which indoor water consumption is a "drop in the bucket."

Ann Hildebrand, the county commissioner who chairs Tampa Bay Water's board of directors, said it is in the county's interest to drive consumption below the old cap of 158-million gallons.

The excess water to supply Tampa during the drought will come mostly from Pasco's Cypress Creek, Cross Bar Ranch and Cypress Bridge well fields.

"The goal is to get back below that as quickly as possible," Hildebrand said.

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