Tampa's water department has an offer for the city's biggest residential water customers: Cut back and get money back.
The city is offering rebates up to $500 per household this spring in an attempt to bring down demand for water during the driest time of the year.
How those customers bring their water bills down is up to them, said Eric Weiss, the department's chief engineer.
"At the end of the day, it's just the results," Weiss said.
The program asks people to pledge to reduce their water use by a set percentage: 5, 10, 15 or 20. At each level, the city dangles a cash payout, starting at $50 and ending at $500. Customers who hit the target get the money as a credit on their water bills.
The program — a test run with a $100,000 budget — will focus on the heaviest users, those averaging more than 15,000 gallons a month. The Southwest Florida Water Management District set the limit.
The majority of the city's residential water customers average about 6,000 gallons a month.
The incentive program may be unique to Tampa. David LaFrance, executive director of the American Water Works Association, a utility trade group, said he had not heard of a similar program elsewhere.
"It's using the carrot rather than the stick to get your customers to reduce water use," LaFrance said.
The more common approach has been to levy surcharges on big users to make water more expensive, something the city considered during the drought of 2009.
City Councilman Mike Suarez, who oversees public works for the council, welcomed the program as a way to begin to make a dent in the city's demand for water. It will make city water customers partners with the government in trying to solve a problem, he said.
"I love it whenever we try to do something that's innovative, even if it's a small amount," Suarez said.
Weiss said heavy users amount to about 10 percent of the city's customers. A 2009 Tampa Tribune analysis of the city's water customers found more than 10,000 households in the high-user category.
Those at the lower end of the high users — using between 15,000 and 16,000 gallons a month — pay nearly $800 a year for water. By cutting their water use by 20 percent, those customers would get enough money in credit and savings on their bills to cover the next 10 months of service, Weiss said.
In the past, the city has taken top-down approaches to reduce water use. It has offered water customers rebates on new toilets. It also has spent millions laying irrigation lines in some South Tampa neighborhoods as a way to get residents to use treated wastewater, instead of drinking water, on their lawns.
Weiss said the new program takes a bottom-up approach, asking customers to find their own way to cut their water use and stick to it. That could mean less lawn sprinkling, fixing a leaky pipe or even taking shorter showers.
"However you want to do it is up to you, as long as the water use gets reduced," Weiss said.
The city will offer advice and guidance to anyone who wants it, he said. People who want to take part must register by Jan. 31, Weiss said.
Weiss said water officials will look at participants' bills between February and July to see whether they hit their goal compared with the same period last year.
That period is crucial because it's a time of high demand — especially for watering lawns — and low supply.
Each year, the Hillsborough River, which provides the city's drinking water, reaches its lowest levels in May. Water levels drop sharply in March, then return to normal around mid-year as the rainy season takes hold.
For the past two years, the river has dropped more than four feet during the dry period.
New Tampa resident June Brooks is skeptical the reduction program will work. She and her husband, Thomas, are on the low end of the city's high-volume customers. Like several of her neighbors in the Arbor Greene subdivision, they use about 15,000 gallons a year. But Brooks doesn't see how they could change that.
"I just don't see how we could use any less," she said this week. "There's just the two of us. We're already watering once a week."