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Links say water use heavy but necessary

Overpumping is common at three golf courses, drawing warnings from Swiftmud; representatives counter that there's no way to maintain them with once-a-week watering.

By DAN DeWITT and BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2000


As the most severe drought on record has parched lake beds and forests, three Hernando County golf courses have been notified that they are using more water than their permits from the Southwest Florida Water Management District allow.

Pumping at these courses -- Whispering Oaks Golf & Country Club, Seven Hills Golfers Club and Sherman Hills Golf Club -- climbed while the drought grew more severe over the past two years. Two of the courses, Sherman Hills and Whispering Oaks, have ignored repeated warnings from the district they began receiving in May.

But all three courses have avoided the next enforcement step -- fines from the district -- by submitting plans to come into compliance.

These courses are hardly the only offenders. Forty-six large water users in Swiftmud's 16-county district were flagged last month as overpumpers.

Representatives from the golf courses say their water use reflects an effort to protect the courses and the huge investment they represent from being destroyed by the drought.

The basic problem, said representatives of both Swiftmud and the golf clubs, is that courses require tremendous quantities of water for maintenance -- amounts that residents who have been trying to save every gallon probably have a hard time imagining.

"What golf courses do is sell grass. They sell a nice place to play," said Richard Solomon, an Orlando lawyer representing Whispering Oaks. Before the club recently planted winter rye grass, Solomon said, "you would have thought you were in Saudi Arabia. It was like Mars during a drought. The club was parched; the members were outraged."

The condition of the course deteriorated while, according to Swiftmud records, it was using 100 times the amount of water in one day that many residents use in a month; the course's water use spiked last May with an average daily consumption of 378,000 gallons.

Solomon's mother, who moved to Ridge Manor in 1957, averages about 3,000 gallons a month, he said. "She probably hasn't used as much water in 43 years as some of these clubs use in four or five days. . . . The sad irony here is that they arguably need more water."

Though courses are subject to some of the same watering restrictions as homeowners, the restrictions are difficult to enforce, said Hernando County code enforcement officer Frank McCabe.

"It's got to be more cut-and-dried," McCabe said.

Even Solomon suggested many courses are probably not complying, especially with the rule allowing them to water fairways only once a week.

"There's no way you can maintain a course with once-a-week watering," he said.

The water-use pattern at all three of the flagged courses followed the same basic pattern. Use rose gradually through 1999 and peaked last spring, before the summer rains and just as Swiftmud sent out the first round of letters warning businesses that were using more water than their permits allowed.

Whispering Oaks' highest use was more than 100,000 gallons above the average amount it is permitted to draw from the ground per day -- 265,000 gallons. Sherman Hills, which has a permit allowing it to draw 333,000 gallons, used an average of nearly 600,000 a day last May. Seven Hills, with an allotment of 388,500, used about 460,000 gallons per day throughout last spring.

Consumption at all three courses dropped somewhat, but all are still pumping at rates considerably higher than allowed, said Bill Bilenky, Swiftmud's general counsel.

"I think the numbers are so large they are very hard to picture," he said.

The average household hooked up to Hernando County utilities consumes about 7,000 gallons per month, with only a handful of the most profligate consumers exceeding 100,000. The average backyard pool holds 15,000 gallons, Bilenky said; a half-million gallons is enough water to fill more than 30 pools a day.

The manager of Seven Hills, Barb Husuliak, referred questions about the course to her husband, Ken, who did not return a telephone call from the Times. Bilenky said that, unlike the other courses, Seven Hills was not identified as an overpumper until this fall, and it has submitted a plan to come into compliance.

Solomon said Whispering Oaks' new owner, One Golf Inc., did not receive the warning letters because they were sent to the old owners.

Representatives of Sherman Hills, Bilenky said, "said they didn't quite understand their permitted quantities."

"It's certainly gone down," said Marion Walker, the club's general manager. "We've been in touch with Swiftmud, and we're doing our best, but it's tough."

Walker's course, like Whispering Oaks, has suffered from the drought, she said. The size of golf courses -- hers includes 120 acres that need irrigating -- necessarily means they will use far more water than any home, just as businesses spend far more money that the average household.

"It's like a company's payroll. It's very different from a residence," she said.

A spike in May, but some mistakes

The districtwide effort to identify overpumpers started back in May, when water-use reports showed that 227 farms, golf courses and utilities throughout the district had pumped more than their permits allowed, Swiftmud attorney Bilenky said.

The spike concerned officials, who normally see just a handful of Swiftmud's 8,600 water permit holders use more than their share, he said. With the area already posting low rainfall amounts and shrinking lake levels, curbing any excess water use was essential, he said.

Swiftmud sent letters in May asking those 227 users to explain their water-use amounts. As it turns out, many were not overpumping at all, Bilenky said.

In some cases, the water meters were being misread, or corroded meter parts were giving false readings, he said.

In other cases, once the water-use permits were recalculated to compensate for the drought, some users fell back into the acceptable range for water use.

Swiftmud uses a computer model, nicknamed "agmod," to calculate the amount of water that each permit holder -- whether it be a golf course or an orange grove -- may use. The model takes into account average rainfall, the type of soil and the water needs of the plants on site, Swiftmud irrigation engineer Ron Cohen said.

"It basically works like a checkbook," said Cohen, who designed the program.

The model starts with the amount of water the plant needs to survive, and then subtracts the amount of water the plant will pick up from rainfall. The difference is the amount of water that should be allowed for irrigation, Cohen said.

During the summer, Swiftmud recalculated the water permits for farmers, golf courses and others to show the extra irrigation needed to offset the lack of rain.

The result: While Swiftmud's watering restrictions limit golf courses to sprinkling fairways once a week and watering greens and tees three times a week, the courses are allowed to spray more water during those applications to make up for lost rain.

"They're not really increasing their water use," said John Hewer, the deputy executive director for Swiftmud's resource regulation division. "They're putting out the amount of water that the plant needs to survive on."

Hewer said all Swiftmud watering restrictions are based on the amount that certain plants need to survive. Homeowners' lawns usually contain St. Augustine grass, a different kind than the golf courses use, and can survive on the once-a-week watering that Swiftmud allows, he said.

McCabe, the Hernando code enforcement officer, said the rules also include loopholes that allow golf courses to water more than once a day. For example, they are allowed to water after applying pesticides. That is what he was told when he responded to a resident's complaint that one course was watering several days in a row.

"They can always play the pesticide card," he said.

Also, unlike homeowners who have a designated day for watering based on their addresses, golf courses can choose their own watering day. So, McCabe said, when he sees a course being watered, he has no way of knowing how many other times it has been irrigated that week.

"There's a perception that we're laying off them, but we're not. It's just very difficult" to enforce the rules, he said.

Plans to comply head off penalties

After checking faulty equipment and recalculating permit amounts for the drought, Swiftmud whittled the list of unexplained overpumpers from 227 to 46. A second letter -- this time from Swiftmud's legal department -- went out to those users Nov. 22 asking them to bring their water use back into compliance within 30 days or face hefty fines.

With that monthlong grace period coming to a close last week, only 10 of the overpumpers in the district had not provided Swiftmud with a satisfactory plan. Swiftmud's governing board initiated the process to fine those pumpers based on how much extra water they had used. Though Whispering Oaks was one of those 10, and was due to be fined $5,800, the course finally submitted a plan on Friday, Bilenky said.

If the remaining overpumpers do not come into compliance, the matter would go before an administrative hearing officer and possibly even to Circuit Court.

"What we're doing is getting very serious about this," said Swiftmud governing board vice chairman Monroe "Al" Coogler. "If 8,600 can comply, we expect the others to fall in line."

Such compliance has never been more important, Coogler said, because the Swiftmud district is finishing what may be its driest season on record.

The district received just 34.83 inches of rain from January to November, compared with the average rainfall of about 50 inches for those months. Previously, the driest January-through-November period on record was in 1927, when the district had just 37.81 inches of rain.

In the northern part of the district, which includes Hernando County, the aquifer is 2.12 feet below the low end of normal.

And the worst part is that the district is just now heading into what is historically the dry season, Swiftmud governmental affairs coordinator Jimmy Brooks said.

"Right now our supplies should be full," Brooks told the Inverness City Council last Tuesday, emphasizing the importance of conservation. "They're not -- they're below the low levels. And the forecast for rain is not good."

Residents like Ray Morris have watched the lakes retreat from their once-waterfront homes. Morris, 64, said the waters have receded 70 feet from the seawall at his home near Floral City.

"What used to be water is now a yard," said Morris, who owned a paint and body shop in Tampa before retiring. "I mow it like a yard."

With water being such a precious commodity, Morris said he was troubled that several golf courses had been using more water than their permits allow.

"The snow birds come down, and they want nice green golf courses," he said. "I think it's a waste of water, personally."

But Coogler, who himself lives next to a course that has been flagged for overpumping -- Black Diamond in Citrus County -- said Swiftmud is working to bring the few violators back into compliance.

"The management district has traditionally tried to work with people when errors like that occur," he said.

"There's no way to say golf courses or citrus growers are getting a break," Coogler said. "All are making the same sacrifice."

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