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Their grass is greener, ours just a sand trap

By GREG HAMILTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2000


By now, you know that Florida is in deep, deep trouble over its freshwater supplies. The aquifer is being tapped out, lakes and rivers are drying up everywhere, and we haven't had any appreciable rain since about 1998.

Meanwhile, the demand continues unabated. Hundreds more people move to the state each day, joined by tens of thousands of winter residents who are just now arriving. It's a prescription for disaster, and we see the catastrophic results every day.

Swiftmud, our water management agency, is in a near panic about the amount of water homeowners are using, enacting ever tougher restrictions that affect every Floridian.

Unless, of course, you own a golf course. In that case, you can pump millions and millions of gallons of our precious freshwater onto your lush fairways and greens every day of the week.

And, if you need even more water to keep your greens green, Swiftmud's response is: Take it.

You say your lawn has turned to hay and you're looking at spending a few hundred dollars to resod and resuscitate your property value? Or you're paying higher taxes for having waterfront property, even though there hasn't been water under your dock since the Reagan administration? Or maybe you're one of the hundreds of people whose wells have run dry in recent months, meaning you've had to pay $1,000 to get that well deepened or a new one dug?

Too bad. In a time of crisis like this, we're told, we all have to make sacrifices.

Unless, of course, you own a golf course.

In that case, use all the water you want. And if you need more, take it, take it -- the rest of us are only too happy to make sure that your customers' outings are unmarred by crunchy grass or -- horrors -- a brown spot on the putting greens.

In today's Citrus Times, you'll find a story about several golf courses that for months have been pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons more than their very generous permits allow. All this at a time of unprecedented drought.

Like everyone else, the golf course owners are feeling the effects of the record low rainfall. The difference is that while your investment in your property plummets, the agency says that's your problem. But for those who average millions of gallons of water each day to maintain their investment, Swiftmud is bending over backward to accommodate their needs.

The courses that are overpumping have come up with an interesting argument when told they are exceeding their appallingly liberal water-use amounts: They want those limits expanded.

It's like being ticketed for going 90 mph on U.S. 19, and then telling the judge that you would like the speed limit on that highway raised to 90 -- just for you -- because your luxury vehicle performs better at that speed. And then having the judge agree.

The agency's explanation is that the courses have special grass that needs a lot of water, and in times of drought, it needs even more to survive. I wonder if you tore out your St. Augustine lawn (soon, you won't have to -- the drought will kill it for you) and replaced it with thick Kentucky bluegrass, would Swiftmud allow you to run your sprinklers as much as you want?

Of course not, unless you allowed people with ugly pants to wander around your lawn for hours whacking a small white ball at a hole back near your tool shed.

Swiftmud's insane and unfair philosophy is summed up nicely by John Hewer, the deputy executive director of resource regulation. "Grass for the homeowner is a luxury," he told the Times. "It does not become a necessity like agriculture, or a business like a golf course."

So, there's your answer. Your lawn, your property, perhaps the biggest asset you own, is a luxury in the eyes of the region's top water officials. But private golf courses that most of us have no chance of ever stepping foot on, those are more important to our society.

It's a wonderful message to send to Floridians who are being hammered at every turn by the impacts of the drought, from dry lakes to a gurgling sound when they turn on the spigot in their kitchens.

The solution is obvious: Either Swiftmud needs to get an overdue dose of common sense and realize that it must limit water use by everyone, not just homeowners, or else we should all plant golf-course quality grass on our lawns and water to our hearts' content.

In the meantime, I'll be outside with a wedge, practicing in the sand trap that used to be my front yard.

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