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Drought means we must scale back daily water consumption

With each day that passes without rain, the water situation becomes more dangerous. Tampa Bay area residents should be aware of the dire need to cut back their consumption to meet the current record demand. This cutback can help to curb more drastic measures in future water restrictions.

By E. D. Vergara

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2000


This is a call for help. There are times when a water utility system finds itself uncomfortably close to being unable to meet the demands of its customers. When this happens, political and public reaction can sometimes be sharp and without sympathy for the reasons behind any such shortfall. This is why water utility systems try very hard to stay well ahead of demand and find it difficult to acknowledge that their systems may be unduly stressed.

In times like these, however, when a drought of significant proportions is upon us, it is time to set aside the potential for public and political reaction and focus on hard reality, and the reality is this: Southwest Florida is in the midst of a very serious drought condition that is growing more dangerous by the day.

Even if it is not a record drought in terms of how little rainfall we have received, there is clearly a record demand for potable water we've never experienced before, and we are rapidly approaching the present capacity of our water supply systems to meet it, particularly in the Tampa Bay area.

For this reason, the district is asking every citizen and business, especially those of the Tampa Bay area, to reduce the amount of water being used until the summer convectional rain showers begin, now anticipated in early June.

Needing to conserve during a drought can be a very urgent need, even an emergency. This is the kind of drought we're in now. Records indicate we have not had this little amount of rainfall since 1915. In recognition of this, the district has issued several short-term emergency orders designed to help water supplies last until the rainy season. It is not yet an emergency that threatens public health and safety, but it can become so if we continue to have bone-dry days with no reduction in demand. The situation, as I view it, is rapidly becoming urgent as I write this on May 9.

There may be confusion between a short-term need to conserve water during a drought, and why there is a need to conserve over the long term.

Needing to conserve over the long term has been equated to "doing the right thing," and can delay a need to invest in high-cost water system expansions, by years in some cases. It can also mean delaying the need to construct more expensive desalination facilities or delaying the onset of long-term adverse impacts on natural systems. The maxim under this circumstance is that water saved today will be available for use tomorrow. In other words, waste not, want not.

In our case, the Tampa Bay region and other areas within the district are facing both predicaments. On the one hand, we are facing an extremely serious drought condition that will affect our daily lives with greater significance each day it continues. If we don't take the need to conserve water seriously in every way reasonably possible right now, we could be faced with very serious consequences in the next few weeks. In this regard, the district is working in every appropriate way to assist Tampa Bay Water and its member governments in meeting the difficulties that loom immediately ahead if it doesn't start raining soon.

On the other hand, unabated growth within the Tampa Bay region combined with an inability to bring significant new water supplies online over the last decade, has resulted in regional demand approaching the ability of the regional system to meet even daily, much less drought-level, demand. For these reasons, through a Partnership Agreement, the District Governing Board has agreed to provide Tampa Bay Water $183-million to motivate the development of alternative water supplies as soon as possible in exchange for reducing the pumping in northwest Hillsborough and Pasco counties; pumping that continues even now to cause significant adverse environmental impacts. Additionally, the Basin Boards of the District have committed another $90-million through 2007 to promote conservation and reuse.

If new sources cannot be brought online in time to meet the provisions of the Partnership Agreement and water-use permit that control the pumping from the Central Wellfield System in northwest Hillsborough and Pasco counties, Tampa Bay governments will be faced with a different kind of need to conserve. The urgency then will be to reduce demand to avoid district enforcement actions that could be triggered by a breach of contract or regulatory infractions, or both.

It is time to begin viewing the situation with appropriate concern. There are two, very real, existing urgencies: 1) In the immediate future, all of us should be doing everything we can do to use less water in both our private and business lives. Each day of record demand without adequate rainfall to replenish surface and groundwater reservoirs moves us closer to when there will be no choice but to severely limit unnecessary water uses to protect public health and welfare. 2) In the long term, Tampa Bay governments should redouble their collective efforts to develop, on an accelerated basis, drought-proof and environmentally compatible water supply sources to meet the growth-related needs of the future and avoid the kind of drought-related situation in which we find ourselves today.

If we don't address these two urgencies immediately and appropriately, we risk at least major inconvenience, or worse, in the short term, and major adverse impacts on the economy of Tampa Bay in the long term.

E. D. "Sonny" Vergara is executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

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