Hillsborough water woes: South county trickle brings torrent of complaints

Commissioners seek remedies for low water pressure until long-term utility upgrades are completed.
In May, the number of complaints from southern Hillsborough residents about low water pressure nearly tripled from the same time a year previously. Commissioners are considering ways to reduce water consumption until long-term upgrades to the county utility system are completed.  [TIMES}
In May, the number of complaints from southern Hillsborough residents about low water pressure nearly tripled from the same time a year previously. Commissioners are considering ways to reduce water consumption until long-term upgrades to the county utility system are completed. [TIMES}
Published July 1, 2021

Hillsborough County plans hundreds of millions of dollars worth of utility improvements for its fast-growing southern region, an area that remains on irrigation restrictions through 2022 to preserve water supplies.

Despite the attempts at both long- and short-term fixes, a question still looms for elected officials and local residents alike: Are we going to have lush lawns or gushing faucets?

It’s a question being asked because each new home comes with a new lawn, exempt from the current once-a-week watering restrictions for county utility customers south of the Alafia River.

“Every new house in this area that hooks up to water is adding to the demand, adding to the problem,” said Commissioner Mariella Smith.

In May, the county received 136 complaints from south county customers about low water pressure, nearly triple the number from May 2020.

The complaints aren’t just words on paper, they are people who can’t rinse the shampoo out of their hair or wait an interminable amount of time just to fill the coffee pot with tap water, said Smith.

Related: Hillsborough again restricts lawn water use

Randy Borrero from the Sereno subdivision in Wimauma turned to Facebook to show the slow flow of water from his kitchen faucet.

“Sprinklers won’t even pop up because the pressure is so low. Things are really getting out of hand,” he wrote in late May.

The start of the summer rainy season brought a decline, but not an end to the water pressure woes. The county recorded 40 complaints from south county residents for the period June 1-18.

The increasing number of complaints comes simultaneously with an increasing number of customers. The county said it set a record in April when it connected 825 new customer meters. In May, the new customers totaled 651.

That’s in addition to the existing accounts — 197,000 countywide in February — serving 665,000 people, two-thirds of whom are in the county’s south-central water system.

Water use in south county reached more than 71 million gallons a day during May, or 21 percent above the limit of Tampa Bay Water’s permit.

State permits issued to Tampa Bay Water, the region’s wholesale water utility, are capped at lower levels than they were in the 1990s to stem the spread of damaged wetlands and dry lake beds from groundwater pumping. Too much pumping, Smith noted, isn’t just a matter of an inconvenient fine; it means the potential for hurting the environment or damaging nearby residents’ private drinking water wells.

So what is the solution?

Ideas kicked around by county commissioners last month include: Not allowing sod to be installed until the June 1 start of the rainy season; encouraging Florida-friendly landscape; mandating reclaimed water for irrigation in new developments, or giving credits for cistern systems.

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“What we’re doing now isn’t responsible,” said Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp.

What should be responsible, Smith said, is better calibrating available water supplies with future growth. A two-year jump in demand, increasing daily consumption by 7 million gallons a day, “shocked everyone,” said Smith.

“It was unprecedented and unpredicted,” she said.

Exactly how to tie water supply to growth remains under discussion.

“We’re not going to suddenly plan ourselves out of this problem that we are in,” said Commissioner Kimberly Overman.

And Smith wouldn’t advocate for a building moratorium.

“I don’t even want to say that word yet,” she told the Tampa Bay Times.

Related: Hillsborough plans utility rate increase

But the county faces two pending pinch points, in 2024 and 2028, when supplies —- and the planned upgrades to the county’s utility system — will be challenged by a growing customer base.

The county has committed to providing 6 million gallons of water daily to the more than 23,000 homes and apartments to be built over the next six years in the south county. Additionally, 10,700 more homes and apartments are planned, but developers have not yet applied for county utility service.

To meet the growth demand, commissioners, over the past year, increased water and sewer impact fees on new construction and approved a monthly utility rate increase for all customers. The water and sewer rates will climb 4 percent annually over a four-year period beginning Oct. 1.

Over the next three years, the new revenue will finance a new transmission pipe, a storage tank capable of holding 3 million gallons of water, new pumps and a booster station to aid the flow of water traveling from a treatment plant in Lithia to south county.

The second phase of the upgrades, scheduled to be completed by 2028, include a new pump station and storage on 330 acres, a treatment plant, a new Tampa Bay Water wellfield, a booster station and supply pipelines.

But, it is the immediate future that worries commissioners.

“We cannot let this get any worse,” said Smith. “What does worse look like? Worse water pressure drops so low people are put on boil water notices and fire hydrants don’t function and people start suing us for failing to meet our state mandated responsibility to provide water at a standard level of service — not a trickle.”