In the wake of the region’s driest rainy season in more than two decades, Southwest Florida water managers will vote next week on whether outdoor irrigation should be cut to one day per week in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District vote, set for Tuesday, comes with a recommendation from the agency’s staff to declare a water shortage order that would include the limits on irrigation.
Tampa Bay Water, the public supplier that provides water to most of the region, supports the measure, and it has urged residents to conserve their water usage in other ways, such as turning off the tap while they brush their teeth and cutting back lawn and landscape watering to once every two weeks in the winter.
Officials this week said the measure marks an important moment in the historic drought: Lowering demand would help keep supply at relatively safe levels while the region awaits rainfall, with El Niño projected to bring a wetter, cooler winter.
“I don’t think people should panic,” Harry Cohen, a Hillsborough County commissioner who serves on Tampa Bay Water’s board of directors, said Wednesday. “I don’t think that we’re in an emergency situation. But we have to be very prudent about this.”
Tampa Bay Water already declared a water shortage in early October, with the region facing a cumulative rainfall deficit of more than 8 inches over the prior year. That gap did not close very much over the next month, with the cumulative deficit at 7.6 inches as of Nov. 1.
Should water managers vote in favor of regionwide restrictions next week, it would be the first such declaration since April 2020, said Susanna Martinez Tarokh, a spokesperson for the Water Management District. At that time, restrictions were put in place for nine counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota.
A normal rainy season leaves Tampa Bay’s regional reservoir completely full, at about 15.5 billion gallons, at the end of September, said Brandon Moore, a Tampa Bay Water spokesperson. This year, it held just over 14 billion gallons as the rainy season ended, he said. As of October’s end, according to the agency, it was down to about 12 billion gallons.
Usually it takes until spring, the driest part of the year, for levels to get that low, Moore said. There’s no danger of Tampa Bay Water not being able to supply drinking water across the region, he said, but he compared the early reliance on the reservoir to living off one’s savings account.
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“If you have to turn to your savings account for any reason, you start to really spend only what is necessary,” he said. “So what we’re asking is for residents to use only what you need.”
But the dry weather has had a cyclical effect, boosting demand from those seeking to water their lawns and in turn further draining the supply.
Tampa Bay Water’s October average of 217 million gallons of water supplied per day was about 22 million gallons higher than normal, Moore said. John Ring, Tampa’s water production manager, said demand for water within the city has increased by 4 million gallons per day since last summer, with that number continuing to climb as the city’s population grows.
The U.S. Drought Monitor this week had most of Pinellas County under an “extreme drought” classification, meaning there’s an increased risk of fires, water shortages and crop or pasture losses. Western Hillsborough was facing similar drought conditions, with the county’s drought level decreasing from west to east. A 10-day rainfall prediction Wednesday forecast no rain over Florida’s entire Gulf Coast.
“A lot of people think, ‘It’s Florida, there’s water all over the place.’ There is, but only for a certain part of the year. And then it dries up,” Ring said. “It comes with being in Florida: It’s feast or famine.”
Counties and municipalities would be responsible for enforcing any restrictions, Moore said, though fines may vary from place to place. Whether restrictions arrive, it’s still just generally good practice to cut back on irrigating in times of little rainfall, Ring said.
“We all just take for granted that we’re going to turn on the faucet and water’s going to come out, and that’s a real wonderful thing that we’re able to have that confidence in our system, but we should be mindful that it is a resource,” Cohen said.
“This is not a hard ask to make of people.”