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Couple goes with drought's flow

They manage on about 10 gallons of water a day utilizing cisterns and water conservation methods.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000

HOMOSASSA -- For Connie and Richard Byrd, last week's downpour could not have come at a better time.

Over the weekend, they had supplied some visitors to Hell Gate Island with 250 gallons of water. But their goodwill came at a price.

The Byrds, who live off the Homosassa River, easily could survive a month on that amount. Although they normally get by on a mere 10 gallons a day, the drought has stretched their considerable resourcefulness.

While making the 20-minute boat ride from MacRae's of Homosassa to their modest home on the island, Richard Byrd said the surprise rain came at just the right time, adding several weeks' supply to their cisterns.

"We . . . collected 200 gallons off that half-inch," he said. "It'll probably last us four weeks."

"It was wonderful," Connie Byrd said.

For weeks now, public water suppliers and regulators have begged people to cut their water consumption. The Southwest Florida Water Management District last month limited residents to one watering day per week while also emphasizing ways people can save water around the house, from taking shorter showers to letting dishes sit in sink water between meals.

The Byrds are a conservation dream team. Their habits come right out of any guidebook, although a recent emergency trip to haul water from Blue Waters spring reminded them how severe the drought is.

To fill up their collection of oversized plastic jugs, Richard Byrd had to set up a special pumping system. It took four trips to collect 220 gallons, which they are using for non-potable purposes such as washing clothes and dishes.

"In case we have to do it again, we can," Connie Byrd said. "I hope there's no law that says we can't do that. I mean, no one stopped us. It's an all-day affair."

The two, both retired, live comfortably in a home purchased six years ago while they were living in a 3,000-plus-square-foot spread in Hernando County. After making the long weekend trips from Hernando County, they decided to make Hell Gate Island their permanent residence.

Their dock is their driveway. Richard Byrd, a handyman around the house, refurbished the dock and walkway, built a screened-in sitting area that keeps the bugs away while he barbecues and added living room space by removing the original porch on the house.

Inside their spotless home, the Byrds enjoy all the creature comforts, from a television and coffeemaker to a computer. In setting conservation policies, planners worry about turning people off by asking them to change their habits. But for the Byrds, saving water comes easily.

Grabbing a sponge at the sink, Connie Byrd, 52, runs the faucet a little and turns it off.

"I'll just plug the sink and turn the water on to wet my sponge and leave the water in there as I wash," she said. "I never fill it up. I probably use a gallon a day for dishes."

She does not wash clothes until she can fit a full load into the machine. They take "Army showers," as Richard Byrd, 57, likes to say, and do not always flush after going to the bathroom.

Guests are given the spiel as soon as they arrive. The hot water tank is only 10 gallons, so they better make it quick.

"We tell them to get wet, soap up, wash up and get out," she said.

The Byrds pride themselves on being resourceful. The only outside water they use is for drinking. Water containers line the shelves.

"How we live here really isn't any different than how people live in other island countries. I think we in Florida need to think about what we can do to add to our water supply," Connie Byrd said.

After hearing how the Byrds survive on 10 gallons of water a day, Swiftmud water conservation analyst Will Miller praised their awareness.

"That is impressive," he said. "And it's certainly achievable. But, of course, I guess they don't have young children."

In reaching out to its 4-million constituents, the district tries to find economical measures that will not change people's lifestyles.

An example: the rebate program on new toilets, which use about 5 fewer gallons a flush. People have been receiving up to $150 to take out their old toilets and purchase less-wasteful models.

Considering how often toilets are flushed during the day, the cost savings is substantial -- about 40 gallons a day, Miller said. The average user in the 16-county district consumes 130 gallons per day.

"What we have is a real savings . . . without the conscious involvement of the homeowner," Miller said. "It doesn't change behavior, which is real difficult."

Other major changes suggested by Swiftmud include fixing leaks, installing new plumbing such as low-water-use shower heads, and relandscaping yards with drought-resistant plants, a process called xeriscaping. He suggested people recycle more of their water by doing things such as using dish water for house plants.

As for cisterns, Miller said they work for some people but are not practical for the general public. They require maintenance and are not necessarily reliable because their usefulness depends on rainfall. More elaborate systems cost thousands of dollars to install, he said.

But cisterns lie at the heart of the Byrd household's water conservation.

Behind their home, three gray plastic cisterns are fed by large PVC pipes running off downspouts connected to the gutters. They hold a total of 3,000 gallons, enough to last the Byrds a half-year. The average user would last 13 days on that amount.

Richard Byrd screws off the top of one to reveal the filter that separates heavy materials from the water. Periodically, he treats it to ensure it is safe.

Their yard is beautiful in an austere way, with exposed tree roots and occasional patches of ferns. Some of their neighbors have imported high-maintenance plants and flowers to the islands, but the Byrds generally let things just grow on their own.

Carol Kemp, who lives a little closer to Old Homosassa than the Byrds, says most island dwellers are "pretty self-sufficient." In one respect, river dwellers are lucky because they are surrounded by water, as long as they do not mind the saltiness and murky color.

Still, the drought inevitably invades their lives.

"I'm dying for rain. Everybody is," said Kemp, who is accustomed to showering and washing dishes with brackish water. "We have burn pits that are getting too high. Everybody's afraid to do that. We can't have campfires at night."

Tough times breed compassion. She said she fills up on fresh water at MacRae's. The Byrds do, too.

"Gator's nice enough to let us do that," she said of facility operator Gator MacRae.

While landlocked residents struggle with browning lawns and water restrictions, river folk like the Kemps and the Byrds seem comfortable with their surroundings. Nobody is going anywhere.

"It's all habit," Connie Byrd said. "I mean, I have everything I want out here."

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