Tampa Bay may raise water rates to slow usage

By JEAN HELLER

St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000


This is how bad the drought has become: If all outdoor watering were banned immediately and into the foreseeable future, it wouldn't solve the problem.

That is the grim message the staff of Tampa Bay Water will take to its board members Monday. The area has been through dry spells before, but nothing in modern history like this.

"This is beyond belief," said Jerry Maxwell, general manager of the region's largest water utility. "It is out of the lines, out of the box, off the table, out of the room, a once-in-two-lifetimes' occurrence, a total anomaly."

While the dry weather has become a long-term inconvenience for the region, it is turning into a short-term crisis for the utility. It is in imminent danger of violating the groundwater pumping permit limits imposed by state regulators at the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

In order to avoid violations, Tampa Bay Water would have to find a way to cut regional demand by 40-million gallons a day. A total ban on outdoor watering would save only 14.3-mgd.

Permit violations are punishable by fines of up to $10,000 per day per incident. The total could grow quickly into the millions, which would be paid by Tampa Bay Water's six member governments, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey.

Customers of water utilities in those jurisdictions could reasonably be concerned about the impact of the fines showing up in their water bills.

To avoid all that, the utility will talk Monday about ways to change the rules in mid game -- to manipulate the numbers so pumping limits aren't violated. But it won't be pumping any less water.

The cruel irony is that people in the Tampa Bay area do seem to be heeding the call to conserve. For the fiscal year 2000, which ran from Oct. 1, 1999, to Sept. 30, 2000, regional demand was down more than 5-million gallons a day over the previous fiscal year.

The only jurisdiction in which demand rose was Hillsborough County, and that increase was most pronounced in areas of high growth, northwest and south-central.

But the heart of the problem is the city of Tampa. Overall demand in the city fell more than in any other jurisdiction, but reliance shifted from the Hillsborough River to groundwater. Groundwater demand went from 5.5-mgd during fiscal 1999 to 12.8-mgd in fiscal 2000, and demand for the current fiscal year is projected to be 17-mgd or more.

On some days recently, Tampa's demand on Tampa Bay Water has peaked to 40-mgd. When the pumping permit was issued, it was envisioned that Tampa would never need more than an annual average of 5-million gallons a day from the utility.

The increase occurred because the city's normal drinking water source, the Hillsborough River, has been so badly battered by the drought it has little water to offer. When that happens, by intergovernmental agreement, the water utility is required to step in.

"This isn't Tampa's fault," said Don Polmann, director of science and engineering for Tampa Bay Water. "They are required by law to provide sufficient water to meet the demands of public health and safety. They couldn't do that without our assistance. It is an emergency. But their needs are putting us out of compliance with the permit. The question is what we do about it."

Tampa has taken some of the most aggressive conservation steps in the region. These include issuing certificates of occupancy for new buildings, including homes, with only dirt where lawns and landscaping would normally be required. The city has hired additional water-use enforcement personnel and is also considering big boosts in water rates that would hit the heaviest users particularly hard.

"The Hillsborough River is running at record-low rates," said Dave Tippin, Tampa's utilities director. "In the last (fiscal) year, we didn't get this low until May. We have to take drastic measures sooner rather than later."

When Tampa Bay Water negotiated the current pumping permit with Swiftmud, it requested that the cap be set at a 36-month rolling average of 166-million gallons a day, which would have covered the current crisis. But the permit was issued at 158-mgd, and projections say violations will begin to occur in April.

The rolling average acts like a train made up of 36 cars. Every time a new engine -- or month -- is added up front, a caboose falls off the back.

"The problem is, we are losing all those low-demand months we accumulated during El Nino," Maxwell said, "and picking up the recent months of huge demand."

The TBW staff will suggest to its board on Monday several ways to find new methods to account for water pumping that would keep the utility under the permit cap.

One option would be to ask Swiftmud to ignore the demand from Tampa beyond the 5-mgd envisioned in the pumping permit.

"That would keep us under the cap nicely," Maxwell said. "Tampa's demands over the 5-mgd match almost exactly what we need to save to stay in compliance."

Another option would be to ask Swiftmud to raise the permit to 164-mgd, an action that would be subject to legal challenge. It would be particularly unpopular in Pasco and northwest Hillsborough, where well fields supply much of the area's water. Residents in those areas want pumping limits reduced even further to curtail years' of environmental damage to lakes and wetlands.

Swiftmud officials are aware of these and other options the utility board will consider Monday. But they aren't commenting.

"We know it's out there, that they have this coming down the pike," said spokesman Michael Molligan. "But until we see what they ask for, we can't respond to it."

On Friday, Swiftmud chairman Ron Johnson sent a letter to the members of the Tampa Bay Water board asking that the member governments together develop a regional emergency action plan to identify new ways to manage the water resource and cut demand. Johnson offered no specific suggestions.

Maxwell is clearly frustrated by the prospect of violating the permit and facing fines.

"A fine is supposed to be a disincentive for a senseless violation," he said. "But what we're doing isn't a senseless violation. We're doing what's required by law. We can't do less. We can't jeopardize public health and safety." The utility is working on new water sources, including a desalination plant and reservoir, but those won't be finished quickly enough to solve the current permit problem.

"This drought this long we never could have predicted," Maxwell said. "But it happened, and now we've got to deal with it."