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Avoid a fine – back away slowly from that sprinkler

MANATEE — If you water your lawn in unincorporated Manatee County more than once a week and get caught, it could cost you a cool $100 starting Tuesday.

The second time you are caught could cost you $200.

A third infraction might cost $500 — and a court appearance.

Hey, what about a warning?

Warnings have been tried and now it’s time to clamp down on water conservation scofflaws, say Southwest Florida Water Management District officials.

The district is expected to impose the “extreme” Phase III lawn and landscape restriction in Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and DeSoto counties during its board of governors meeting Tuesday in Brooksville, Amy Merrill, a Manatee County public affairs officer, confirmed Wednesday.

Manatee is currently in the district’s modified Phase II, or severe category, which allows once-a-week watering with warnings to violators; Phase III allows once-a-week watering with citations, Merrill said.

There is only one more status and that is Phase IV, referred to as “critical,” which can include a complete ban on outside water use.

“We are 98 percent sure they will be implementing Phase III for us Tuesday,” Merrill said.

It’s likely offenders won’t get a ticket immediately, but once county officials believe residents have had time to digest the information, citations will be issued, Merrill said.

Manatee County will enforce the new guidelines by having its one water conservation resource officer, who has code enforcement certification, issuing citations rather than warnings.

“This will be the first time we have issued citations,” Merrill said.

If it turns out the one officer needs help, nine other officers in the county’s code enforcement areas are at the ready.

The code enforcement officers’ jurisdiction does not include Manatee’s incorporated cities, Merrill said.

Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and DeSoto are part of the 16-county Water Management District.

Three of those counties — Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco — are already in Phase III and may go to the rare Phase IV, said Mike Coates, water resources director for Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority.

Like other regions in this part of the state, Tampa Bay is struggling to maintain levels of drinking water, Coates said.

The reason for intensifying conservation issues is because the area is still feeling the impact of a three-year drought, said Robyn Felix, a Water Management District spokeswoman.

“We have been on a one-day-per-week watering restriction for the entire 16-county area since January 2007, but now we are continuing to tighten it further,” Felix said.

The district recommends the $100, $200 and $500 fine format and Manatee County will most likely follow it, Merrill said.

The Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority and the Water Management District both agreed that putting tougher restrictions on the four counties was needed, Coates said. Manatee is a member of the Authority but probably won’t need to get any water from it until at least 2025. Sarasota, DeSoto and Charlotte already partake of the Authority’s water. Sarasota also buys water from Manatee.

“We have continued to be in the drought that started in the spring of 2006,” Coates said. “The result of that is that for the last three years, flows in the Peace River have been way below normal.”

Last year, the flows were 75 to 90 percent below normal, Coates said.

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