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Zephyrhills puts the brakes on growth as it battles water woes

Construction crane over a home
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
Roofers lift a truss into place at a subdivision being built in Zephyrhills

Pasco County's largest city has taken the unprecedented step of halting growth for the next year as it tries to figure out how to reduce how much water it uses.

Construction workers are busy building roofs at a subdivision just off Eiland Boulevard. Roof trusses are being hoisted into place and workers are using nail guns to secure wooden struts.

That's a sound you may not be hearing as much of in here during the coming year.

Welcome to Zephyrhills, whose entrance signs tout it as "The city of pure water." But it's been using too much water, as new homes blossom like weeds after a summer rain.

The city was about to go over the limit for how much water it is allowed to withdraw from the Florida aquifer. So in June, they did something unprecedented in Florida in recent times: city council members voted to stop permitting any new developments for one year.

Little resistance to the halt

But something unexpected happened: No one really complained about it. Not even the prospective builders whose plans would be pushed back.

I can't say I've heard from new developers. There may have been a call or two, but no real big projects that have come to me," said Todd Vande Berg, planning director for Zephyrhills. " I haven't really spoken with anyone who was negative on that or, you know, we want to do this new residential development in the city and can't do it now. I really haven't had any of that to date.

Vicki Wiggins, president of the Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce, said the same thing.

On the contrary, Wiggins said. Most people she's talked to are backing the move, so the city can catch up on its infrastructure because there's so much growth.

Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
A mural depicts what Zephyrhills is known for - including skydiving and "pure water"

Conserving water for future residents

Zephyrhills is authorized to withdraw just over 3 million gallons per day from the aquifer, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District. That limit was approved in 2020 and was meant to last for another 20 years. But at the current rate of growth, they'll soon be pushing up against that limit.

Vande Berg said the city stopped new development to make sure they have enough water not only for future residents, but for industrial uses as well.

"While we're paused, we're trying to look at all the water choices that are out there," he said. "Just so that we can plan appropriately and not over-develop."

"The thought that Florida's going to run out of water is kind of absurd. And the fact that there's always desalinization available, so we're not going to run out of water. We've just run out of cheap water."
Brian Armstrong, executive director of Zephyrhills' water district

But it's not so much of an issue of water being in short supply. It's planning for the future that seems to be in short supply.

That's the point made by Brian Armstrong, executive director of the water district.

"We are never going to run out of water. The thought that Florida's going to run out of water is kind of absurd," Armstrong said. "And the fact that there's always desalinization available, so we're not going to run out of water. We've just run out of cheap water."

The problem is partly the city's location. It's just west of the Hillsborough River. Armstrong said too much pumping can affect the flow of the river — which is the main source of drinking water for the city of Tampa, downstream.

"Within the Tampa Bay area back in the early '90s, late '80s, we set what was called the Northern Tampa Bay Water Use Cautionary Area, which identified it as an area of resource concern," Armstrong said. "But we've grown that area over a million people and reduced the major pumping with the regional entity by over 70 million gallons per day. So there are other opportunities to meet your needs. And I think Zephyrhills needs to further investigate those."

Downtown Zephyrhills
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
Downtown Zephyrhills

Lessons from other cities

No other city in Florida has had to put the brakes on growth because of water shortages since at least the 1980s, said Abhinav Alakshendra, a professor of urban planning at the University of Florida.

"There shouldn't be any water shortage if we plan carefully," Alakshendra said. "Fundamentally, it's all about the corporations will come to the government and say, 'You know what? I don't think this is going to be sustainable.' We need to do something about it. Water conservation is something which can be done from the very beginning. We can learn from other cities."

Alakshendra said Zephyrhills officials can learn from other cities that have led the way like Las Vegas and Cape Town, South Africa, which were running out of drinking water before instituting reforms.

Vande Berg said Zephyrhills is considering some of those reforms. It would include enrolling in the water district's Water Star program. That mandates low-flow faucets and shower heads on new homes, and limiting the use of outdoor irrigation, which in some cases uses half of a home's water consumption.

"We're trying to step back and pause, and then try to create that vision," he said. "How are things going to shake out, with, one, the public infrastructure from the wells, particularly how much Swiftmud's going to give us an increase in our water use permit, based on the demand that we have. And then, what are some other potential water sources?"

That could include partnering with Pasco County, which gets its supply from Tampa Bay Water.

He said the city is in the midst of reworking its comprehensive plan, the city's master plan for growth. That could include not approving so many water-guzzling single-family homes, to promote what's called the "missing middle" — multifamily houses, such as townhomes that include common green spaces.

Only then, the construction boom may start again.

House being built
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
New housing continues to rise in Zephyrhills

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.