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Water conservation program gets one-year reprieve in Tampa Bay area

Blanket flowers, or Gaillardia, are an example of Florida-friendly landscaping that can help homeowners conserve water.
Blanket flowers, or Gaillardia, are an example of Florida-friendly landscaping that can help homeowners conserve water.
Published Sep. 3, 2013

The Florida Friendly Landscaping program, which helps homeowners save on monthly water bills, will continue another year despite cuts that threatened to end the program.

The conservation effort had won accolades for helping consumers and saving millions of gallons of water yearly, but it fell victim to budget cuts when the Southwest Florida Water Management District voted in late July to end its $500,000 annual subsidy.

The cuts would have shut down the program in the 16 counties where it operates, including the Tampa Bay area, by Oct. 1. Now it seems the water-saving effort will live another year, at least in Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hernando.

Tampa Bay Water has agreed to pick up the $161,000 tab for salaries and benefits for the program coordinators in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas.

In Hernando, officials opted to subsidize the position and expand the coordinator's duties to include recycling education.

"It just has a lot of value," said Susan Goebel-Canning, Hernando's director of environmental services. "It's a great environmentally friendly program, as far as trying to reduce the amount of fertilizers, control stormwater runoff, reduce contaminants."

The district, known as Swiftmud, said it ended the funding because the coordinators' water-saving tips were already online or known to homeowners. Instead, it said it will focus on an in-house effort called Water Star to persuade builders to construct water-saving buildings.

Counties and county extension services, which administer the program, were floored that Swiftmud was cutting funding.

"There's a difference when people are shown through an outreach effort what can be saved, and if they continue to utilize that information there can be an even greater impact," said Stephen Gran, director of Hillsborough's extension service. "People don't always seek that information, and many times you have to assist them."

Tens of millions of gallons have been saved regionally through the effort, he said. In Pasco, about 3 million gallons are saved monthly, community services director Elizabeth Goodwin Harris said. In Pinellas, the program has saved 13.5 million gallons since 2008.

Word of the cuts came as a shock at Pinellas' extension service where the program's coordinator meets regularly with condo and homeowner associations to find ways to save money, reduce fertilizer use and select plants adapted to Florida's climate.

"Everybody is supportive of the work she provides, so this definitely wasn't good news to us," said Mary Campbell, the extension service's director. "Right away we began looking for opportunities to fund this position."

Tampa Bay Water was already subsidizing conservation programs in Pasco, Pinellas and Hills­borough when its board voted unanimously this month to up its contribution by $161,000.

The board will need to vote again next year to continue the subsidy, which gives the extension services time to seek other funding sources.

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"When you realize that almost half of residential water use is in your yard, anything you can do to lower overall usage is a huge benefit," Tampa Bay Water spokesman Brandon Moore said.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

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