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City: Water violators beware

All city employees on the road have been authorized to hand out warnings to people who ignore watering rules.

People who prefer to pamper their petunias rather than save the region's drinking water supply have had it pretty easy in Clearwater during the past few years. Only 17 citations have been issued to lawn-watering scofflaws since 1998.

"If you check with us a month from now, that will be significantly different," Jeff Kronschnabl, who heads city code enforcement, said Monday. "Starting today, March 19, the city will take a more stringent approach."

Prompted by the region's drought and water-supply emergency, the city will be instructing all city employees on the road during their shifts _ from police officers to park maintenance crews _ to start recording watering violations and give out warnings.

"This way, we could have literally hundreds of people monitoring water use," Kronschnabl said.

City code enforcement inspectors will follow up on tips from other employees and hand out citations for repeat violators who water more than one day a week or at the wrong hours.

Today, the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District is scheduled to consider an emergency order that would require Tampa Bay area cities to take such steps to force residents to conserve water. If the order is approved, governments would have to step up watering enforcement efforts to 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The City Commission, including three newly elected members who discussed the issue at Monday's regular workshop, didn't object to more stringent enforcement.

Mayor Brian Aungst said he thought it was a necessary step. "Probably, we haven't been as diligent as we could be," he said.

"It is a city ordinance, or a county ordinance, that we need to be following," said Commissioner-elect Bill Jonson. "Our goal isn't to maximize the number of citations, but to maximize compliance with the regulations."

In Clearwater, after at least one warning is given to a homeowner, the first citation for illegal lawn watering carries a $55 fine. Fines increase to up to $180 by the fourth offense.

The city emphasized catching lawn watering violators in the past. Nearly 100 citations were issued and more than 1,300 warnings handed out in 1995 _ a level of enforcement that won praise from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

But during the past few years, code inspectors' energies were shifted to other projects, Kronschnabl said, such as trying to persuade property owners to clean up commercial areas to make them more attractive to redevelopment.

"Now we're back on track," Kronschnabl said.

Other orders that Swiftmud is considering imposing to save water would be more difficult to comply with, city officials said.

For instance, Swiftmud is considering asking area governments to increase their water rates until they see a 5 percent decrease in water use. In Clearwater, which uses 15-million gallons of drinking water daily, the city would have to force a cutback in water use of about 750,000 gallons daily. No city officials would speculate how big of an additional rate increase would be needed to achieve such a drop.

City officials argue that they're now doing their part to ease the water shortage, so the required increase in water rates shouldn't apply here.

Officials noted the city is designing a water treatment plant, which would allow it to boost its water supply by about 2-million gallons a day by filtering water pumped from city wells at the plant.

Also, interim City Manager Bill Horne said, the city recently okayed a 40 percent increase in rates to be spread out over the next five years.

The first step of the planned water rate increase _ a 7 percent rise in rates _ takes effect in July. That should be enough for Swiftmud, Horne suggested.

"Hopefully, that should serve the purpose," Aungst agreed.

If Swiftmud doesn't buy that argument and imposes new restrictions on Clearwater anyway, the city can appeal the agency's order within 30 days, City Attorney Pam Akin told commissioners Monday.

City's watering rules at a glance

Addresses that end in even numbers or A-M may water only on Tuesday during allowed hours.

Addresses that end in odd numbers or N-Z, or properties without an address, may water only on Sunday during allowed hours.

Potable water users may not water between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on allowed day.

Well, lake or pond water users may not water between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on allowed day.

Reclaimed water users may not water between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., but days of use aren't restricted.

For information, call the city's water conservation hotline at (727) 562-4987.

Source: city of Clearwater