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Forum surveys depths of water issue

Residents and officials gather to talk about the broad problems and solutions related to the water shortage.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2000


CRYSTAL RIVER -- Daily life in Citrus County has changed since low rainfall and emergency watering restrictions began giving residents little respite from scorched lawns and the wary eyes of neighbors.

But 125 people attending a special water forum Thursday night steered away from those drought-related inconveniences. They and the six panelists at Crystal River Middle School concentrated on the broader issues affecting water supply, such as conservation, growth management, use of fertilizers and the statewide commitment to central sewer systems.

Criticizing "America's love affair with the lawn," Jim Nichols, a member of Save the Homosassa River Alliance Inc., touched upon one of the night's major themes. If water resources are to be protected, he said, people must be willing to alter their habits, which often include bombarding lawns with fertilizers that invade the water and help non-native plants proliferate.

"It seems maybe we need a culture mentality change," Nichols said.

No one spoke out in disagreement.

The forum, sponsored by the Citrus chapter of the League of Women Voters, attracted many local officials, including state Sen. Richard Mitchell, D-Jasper, and state Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River. State Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, was a late arrival after flying in from Colorado.

Filling the remaining seats were County Commissioner Gary Bartell, Southwest Florida Water Management District executive director Sonny Vergara, Swiftmud governing board vice chairman Monroe "Al" Coogler and Don Berryhill, bureau chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection's division of water facilities.

Attention focused on the need to protect the county's relatively abundant water resources and the central role of planned growth in avoiding overdevelopment.

Argenziano frequently referred to "local sources first," the legislation she helped pass that encourages conservation measures such as desalination and reuse. But the law does not guarantee the resource, she and others warned.

The Legislature gave a friendly ear this session to the concept of water marketing, which would allow water-use permit holders to sell some of their excess supply. Although the bill failed, the Legislature agreed to study the issue further, Vergara said.

Supporters say water marketing would encourage conservation.

"This is not going to go away," Vergara said. "Where is the supply? Hello -- (Citrus is) probably one of the most water-rich areas of the state."

Argenziano shook her head in disgust whenever water marketing was mentioned.

"The environment will suffer," she said. "When you hear water marketing, that's when you call the governor, call your representative."

Operators of golf courses and phosphate mines, industries often seen as water villains, received surprise pats on the back.

"We're made out to be the bad guy," said Butch Garlin, assistant superintendent at Pine Ridge Golf Course and one of the industry's defenders in the crowd.

Alliance chairman Jim Bitter, accusing farmers of wasting water, told Mitchell that the Legislature should set tough limits on agricultural interests. Mitchell said the ensuing political firestorm would cause the idea to fail.

"That's not an answer, Richard," Bitter said.

After the meeting, Vergara said conservation measures are working and called the forum "very insightful."

Citrus residents showed their savvy on water issues, Argenziano said.

"People brought up some excellent points, and it shows the interest of the community," she said. "That really helps to know how your community feels."

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