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Fire, water rules may be faces of drought

As the dry spell deepens, Hernando officials examine the limits and potential of restrictions on lawn watering and backyard burning.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2000

BROOKSVILLE -- Hernando County residents soon could face a ban on backyard trash burning and more stringent limits on the times they can water the lawn.

County Administrator Paul McIntosh said Wednesday that his staff is looking into the feasibility of such actions as the county grows drier. To date, only 2.68 inches of rain have fallen on Hernando this year -- about 5 inches below normal.

The county's latest available drought index hovered at 622, meaning there is a severe threat of wildfires, with no chance of rain in sight. The index goes up to 800, the worst drought level.

"I'm looking for some way we can control this," said County Commission Chairman Paul Sullivan, who suggested the burn ban and watering restrictions. "There are still people who burn as a way of disposing their trash. A single spark can torch the county."

The same concern prompted Citrus, Sumter and Polk counties during the past three weeks to stop all outdoor burning not permitted by the state Division of Forestry until enough rain falls.

"They want to have some control over that because, by statistics, that type of burning is causing more brush fires" than anything except arson, said Chuck Schneider, operations administrator for the Division of Forestry's Withlacoochee Center, which includes Hernando, Citrus, Pasco, Sumter and Lake counties.

Forestry has no problem with counties banning yard burns, Schneider said. The division will retain control of land clearing, controlled forest burns and agricultural burns, he said, and the governor will remain the only person who can impose a complete ban.

Without rain, the demand for water to keep lawns and gardens alive grows. Hillsborough and Pasco counties have limited sprinkling beyond the state-permitted times, and Sullivan said he wants Hernando to follow suit.

"Perhaps we need to have more severe restrictions," he said. "I want to find out our authority."

The Southwest Florida Water Management District has limited watering in Hernando to two days a week since December 1993. Spokesman Michael Molligan said local governments must adhere to Swiftmud's sprinkling rules but can set tougher standards.

In its review, the Hernando County staff must consider the impact that excess strains on the water supply are having on the local aquifer and wells, which are not the same as those used in Hillsborough and Pasco, McIntosh said. County lawyers also must review the legalities involved, he said.

"Do we have the legal authority to restrict people using their own wells? I don't know," McIntosh said.

Molligan said counties may stop any water use as they see fit.

"Then there's the whole enforcement aspect," McIntosh said. "Will we have the sprinkler police out there checking to see who's using their sprinklers at 3 a.m.?"

He suggested an effort to better educate residents about responsible watering might prove more effective in the long run.

One thing was clear to all involved, though: A dry 1999 followed by a worse 2000 bodes poorly for this part of Florida.

"It's going to get worse before it gets better," said Eric Oglesby, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "April is the driest month of the year anyway. So there really is no relief in sight."

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