Water brings politics to a boil
May 30, 2009
In times of drought, water becomes a political issue.
Elected officials plead with consumers to cut back on potable water use and scramble to enact get-tough watering restrictions to reduce consumption, while pointing their fingers at each other and trading blame for not doing enough to prevent water shortages.
Then the rains come, and the political debate evaporates.
So it was with Tampa's handling of its most recent water crisis, which culminated this week after council members voted to loosen the city's tough watering restrictions after two weeks of steady rain and months of back-and-forth on the volatile issue.
"We should be working at McDonald's," Councilman Charlie Miranda, a supporter of the watering restrictions, quipped at a recent meeting. "Flipping and flopping burgers."
The sprinkler ban was one of several recommendations city water officials presented to the council on March 19, along with a presentation that depicted a crisis so severe that the Hillsborough River, Tampa's main source of drinking water, was running dry.
Mayor Pam Iorio had proposed phasing in new restrictions over several months, starting with a reduction in the number of watering days from once a week to twice a month.
Council members, several of whom are planning to run for higher office, decided to take Iorio's request up a few notches by approving the toughest irrigation rules in the state.
Then as property owners from New Tampa to South Tampa watched their lawns turn from green to yellow to brown, several of them soon found themselves on the defensive from angry constituents, many demanding that they immediately rescind the sprinkler ban.
Landscaping contractors became fixtures at council meetings, warning of job losses.
Seemingly overnight, the water emergency became an effort to save peoples' lawns.
Linda Saul-Sena, a citywide council member who is considering a run for mayor, couldn't ignore voter concerns. Less than a week after voting for the ban, she changed her mind and began pushing, along with two other council members, to loosen the restrictions.
Councilman Joseph Caetano also switched his position on the watering restrictions after being barraged by complaints about dying grass from his New Tampa constituents.
Several attempts to overturn the controversial sprinkler ban failed.
Less than a week after the rules went into effect, Councilman John Dingfelder, the only member of the council who has consistently opposed the ban, tried unsuccessfully to persuade his fellow council members to allow the use of sprinklers twice a month.
Then, two weeks later, Caetano joined the ban opposition and made a similar motion, which failed 4 to 3, with him, Saul-Sena and Dingfelder voting in the minority.
Another move to loosen the ban came on May 21, but that also was unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, a series of blunders by city staff also made political fodder for members of an elected body often accused of being a rubber stamp for the Iorio administration.
For one, the council was kept in the dark about the emergency until the night before the March 19 meeting, which gave them little time to review the mayor's proposed rules.
Also, property owners who use well water to irrigate lawns were erroneously included in the restrictions, forcing the council to amend the emergency ordinance a week later.
The water department also sent out incorrect information in fliers and newspaper advertisements about who was affected, causing confusion and frustration among the 35,000 customers of Tampa's water department who live outside the city limits.
The restrictions increased requests for reclaimed water, but city officials were unable to meet that demand, in part, because the system only serves a few neighborhoods.
Then came word that the Parks and Recreation Department had been granted a special administrative variance from the water department to exclude nearly a dozen city-owned athletics fields and a plant nursery at Lowry Park Zoo from the watering restrictions.
At several meetings, Dingfelder and Caetano heaped criticism on administration officials for the mistakes and for not giving them enough information to deal with the crisis.
Then, just as the debate over the rules was reaching a climax, the rain started falling.
Iorio sent council members a letter asking them to loosen the watering restrictions.
Council chairman and mayoral candidate Tom Scott, who had so far opposed easing the rules, pledged he would provide the swing vote needed to amend the restrictions.
So on Thursday, with TV cameras capturing the event as they did March 19, the council voted 5 to 2 to allow property owners to use their sprinklers once a week.
Councilwoman Mary Mulhern and Miranda were the only ones to vote against it.
As they cast their votes inside city hall, outside, it was beginning to rain.
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