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Increased water use is par for the course

Mining was once the biggest user of water in the county, but with residential and commercial growth, usage patterns have shifted much in 20 years.

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 17, 2001


Beneath the pipe that drains condensation from his air conditioner, Robert Hall keeps a small plastic container.

When it fills up, Hall pours the water into a 5-gallon bucket. On hot days, he said, he can collect more than 15 gallons this way, enough to keep the shrubbery watered at his house in Ridge Manor West.

Hall, a 64-year-old retired masonry contractor, said he maintains this admittedly tedious routine because it conserves water that otherwise would be lost.

"Every business and every home has this water. I see it dripping out onto sidewalks and evaporating right into the air. I just don't like to see all that water going to waste," he said.

About a half-mile north of Hall's house lie the greens and fairways of Sherman Hills Golf Club, which soak up more water in an average day than Hall's system could generate in a lifetime. Sherman Hills -- one of several golf courses flagged for overpumping during the three-year drought -- has withdrawn an average of 363,000 gallons per day over the past 12 months (a substantial reduction from the previous year).

That is more than most other 18-hole golf courses in the county, but not much more, and slightly less than the county's largest commercial nursery. These amounts, in turn, are dwarfed by the millions of gallons used daily in mining and related industries.

The emphasis on individual conservation and watering restrictions during the ongoing drought may have obscured a basic fact about water consumption in Hernando County: Its mines, golf courses and agricultural enterprises draw about as much water as all residents combined -- quantities that are staggering to homeowners who have been sweating to conserve a few gallons.

"How do you convince a person they shouldn't water their flowers when Swiftmud is letting the mines use a million gallons an hour to wash rocks?" said Sally Sevier, a longtime mining critic. The figure she cited was approximately equal to the total amount of water used by all mining-related activity when the industry's consumption peaked in 1999.

There is, however, a flip side to these statistics.

As total water use in Hernando has climbed steadily over the past 20 years, so has the percentage of water used inside homes and for watering lawns.

In 1980, a total of about 30-million gallons a day was pumped in the county. That climbed to 49-million gallons in 1999, before falling slightly last year.

Mining was once by far the largest user in the county. That use has declined, however, while use by golf courses and residents has climbed sharply.

Utilities, which serve mostly homes, draw more from the county's aquifer than any other sector. That demand, along with consumption by golf courses, will almost certainly increase as the county's population grows in the coming decades.

Once-a-week watering restrictions, increased water rates and education about conservation have helped reduce average consumption among the county's residential customers from 9,300 gallons in March 1999 to 7,300 this year, said Kay Adams, the county's utilities director.

The county recently passed a landscape ordinance that will mandate more drought-tolerant planting and limit the percentage of lots that can be covered with thirsty species of grass.

This emphasis on conservation will likely continue, Adams said, even after the drought ends.

"Whether it's the restrictions, or the (increased) rates or their consciences, people are responding," she said. "What we need is for people to conserve not just during the drought, but year in and year out."

Mining companies

Use at the mines has also gone down, according to Southwest Florida Water Management District statistics.

Declines in pumping at the mines -- especially the one owned by CSR America Inc. northwest of Brooksville -- are primarily responsible for the 13 percent drop in countywide withdrawals from the aquifer last year, according to Swiftmud statistics.

The company, based in West Palm Beach, bought the mining, rock-processing and cement-making operation from Florida Crushed Stone Co. last year. Along with an adjacent plant that generates power and lime -- and is still operated by the owners of Florida Crushed Stone -- the complex used an average of 7.1-million gallons per day in 2000. That compares with an average of 11.7-million gallons the year before.

CSR would need more water for a plant expansion approved by the county in 1999, but it has yet to seek a pumping permit, and the company says plans for the plant have been postponed.

CSR uses water to clean silt and other impurities from the rock as it is crushed and separated into different grades, said Pat Venable, Florida Crushed Stone's environmental manager. Water also cools turbines and other equipment at the power plant.

Saving water was mostly a byproduct of installing new rock-processing equipment in late 1999, Venable said. Also, he said, the company recycles as much water as possible.

After workers wash the rock, the water is pumped into a a series of ponds that cover 1,200 acres on the property. This system allows the silt to gradually settle so the water can be used again by both the power plant and for rock processing. The ponds also allow water to filter down into the aquifer.

"This whole facility was designed with the conservation of water in mind," Venable said.

Sevier, however, pointed out that fine materials such as silt can block water from returning to the groundwater supplies. As a result, she said, recharge rates for the mines are actually lower than for the typical household, where used water either ends up in a septic tank or percolation ponds built by utility companies over sandy soil.

"That is a good point, to a point," said John Parker, who regulates the mines for Swiftmud. "The (fine materials) help the ponds hold water."

Studies have shown that a substantial amount of water does return to the aquifer, Parker said. They have also shown that large amounts of water are lost through evaporation and carried away in trucks along with the freshly washed rock.

Golf courses

Golf courses have reduced pumping at least partly because several of them were pressured to do so by Swiftmud.

At various points during the three-year drought, a half-dozen golf courses in Hernando County have pumped more water than their Swiftmud permits allowed, said Vivian Bielsky, who helps regulate the courses' water consumption for the district.

The district sent letters to the most consistent violators in May 2000. Then, in November, it sent a follow-up letter to the three courses that had failed to respond to the earlier warnings -- Sherman Hills Golf Club in Ridge Manor West, Whispering Oaks Golf & Country Club in Ridge Manor and Seven Hills Golfers Club in Spring Hill.

At all three courses, average daily use over the last year still exceeds their permitted amounts. But all have reduced usage, the district said, and only Seven Hills still faces a possible fine, Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said.

Water use increases during a drought because courses need to run sprinklers to make up for a lack of rainfall, said Mark Healy, of Links Management Inc., which operates Sherman Hills. His course has pumped enough to keep the grass from dying, he said, but not enough to keep it lush. The sandy soil, which quickly drains away the water applied to the course, was primarily responsible for its high pumping rates, he said.

One factor contributing to high golf course water use nationally is the expectations of golfers, said Judy Thompson, spokeswoman for the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter.

"Golfers expect to see something at their local course that compares to Augusta (National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.)," Thompson said.

That standard is particularly difficult to maintain in Florida, where wide grassy areas do not occur naturally and require large applications of fertilizer and water to maintain, she said.

Florida designers are trying to change golfers' expectations, said Ron Garl, a golf architect in Lakeland, who has designed several courses in Pasco and Hernando counties.

New grasses are being developed that are more tolerant of Florida weather, including some that can thrive on brackish water, he said. Modern course builders are more likely to leave large areas natural and carve out relatively small fairways and greens, Garl said.

"Golf courses are not going to get greener and greener. They are going to get browner and browner," he said.

Hernando, with 19 courses, has three times as many golf courses per capita than the national average, Thompson said.

Whether Hernando County is able to limit future consumption by courses will probably depend on design changes caused by shifting tastes and market conditions.

The county cannot forbid the building of more courses based on their water consumption. Such decisions are the responsibility of Swiftmud, county commissioners said.

County Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley said he does not foresee mandating the kind of water-saving landscaping for golf courses that the commission recently did for businesses and homes.

"I don't think we can design golf courses," he said.

Who are the big water users?

The 10 largest users of groundwater in Hernando County, other than utilities, are mostly mines, industries related to mining, and golf courses. The figures, provided by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, represent the average number of gallons pumped per day in 2000.

Average gallons per day

Vulcan/ICA Distribution Co. (mining) 4.6-million

CSR America (mining and cement production) 3.8-million

Florida Crushed Stone (power and lime production) 3.4-million

Cemex (cement production) 2.6-million

MI Nursery 508,613

Silverthorn Country Club 501,677

Sherman Hills Golf Club 453,915

Seven Hills Golfers Club 429,455

Spring Hill Golf & Country Club 417,448

World Woods Golf Corp. 369,563

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