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A Times Editorial

Get real about water use, starting with Swiftmud

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002

Go ahead, yank those bricks out of your toilet tanks. Take 20-minute hot showers. Spray your begonias till they beg for mercy. It turns out that we have plenty of water after all.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District last week told a meeting of citizens and county officials that water levels in Citrus County have remained constant over the past 50 years, even as consumption has greatly increased.

But, wait. Such wasteful behavior would be irresponsible and wrong. In fact, Swiftmud said there will be enough water to meet expected demands through 2020 only if residents continue to conserve and if the apparatus for widespread use of reclaimed water for irrigation ever gets in place.

So, maybe the supply isn't in such great shape after all.

The dual message from Swiftmud is that residents and businesses should be careful about their water use. Don't waste this natural resource, seek alternatives to drawing water from the aquifer, consider setting up desalination plants along the coast.

And the reward for such efforts? Why, the agency can then approve more housing developments and businesses for the county, further increasing the demand for water.

After the drought of the past two-plus years, it should be apparent to every Citrus County resident that our water supply is neither endless nor guaranteed. When the rain stops falling, trouble begins. The dried-up lakes of counties south of here clearly demonstrate the perils of overpumping to accommodate unlimited growth.

Members of the audience at Monday's meeting asked Swiftmud why it would grant permission for 4,000 new homes, along with two new golf courses, to be built in Beverly Hills, where residents have been told they must cut back on water use. Why would the agency approve a dairy farm that is expected to use hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of gallons of water a day?

The Swiftmud two-step then began.

The agency said it can't deny water-use permit applications if the property owners have met the legal requirements. That would be denying them their property rights, which would be simply un-American.

Why, then, can't the water agency tighten the requirements for such permits if the water supply is so fragile?

Because, Swiftmud said, the Legislature sets the rules, not the water management districts.

Are we to believe that the great minds in the Florida Legislature do so without any involvement from the water management districts?

Considering that Swiftmud told the audience that it is years away from having such useful information as the minimum levels and flows in the water bodies that it monitors, maybe the agencies really can't help the lawmakers set realistic criteria.

More to the point is that no one in government seems interested in setting responsible water-related limits on growth. It is much easier to order homeowners to cut back on their usage than to tell developers to scale back their projects.

Last week's meeting was just the latest example of mixed messages from Swiftmud that have baffled the public.

Homeowners are told to limit their lawn watering, under penalty of law. Yet the regulations are different, depending on where you live in Citrus County. How can that be if we're all drawing from the same source?

Beverly Hills residents were told they were using too much water, and a rate change was proposed to force them to reduce their usage. Yet the nearby golf courses were allowed to spray millions of gallons of fresh water each day onto their lush greens.

For years, the district battled residents who sought to have the Wysong Dam reinstalled on the Withlacoochee River.

The agency produced a mountain of studies and expert opinions concluding that the dam would have little if any effect on water levels.

Then, the district did an about-face and the dam has been rebuilt. What does that say about the validity of all of those previous studies?

In the absence of clear direction from the water experts, the public must rely on its own common sense when it comes to water use.

Conservation is a must. Alternative sources must be explored. And pressure must be brought to bear on the governmental bodies charged with managing growth to be diligent.

Coincidentally, this is the seventh annual Save Our Waters Week, a time to focus on ways to be better stewards of our water, both above and below ground.

Activities are planned all week to heighten awareness of these responsibilities. Commentaries will appear in newspapers on various aspects of water management.

Take the time to read the articles, attend one or more of these events, become better informed of the vulnerability of our water supply.

The public should take seriously its responsibility to conserve water, but so should government, beginning with the water management district.

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