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Courses over par in water use

Swiftmud demands the four courses bring their pumping within limits or face fines. Two have requested increases.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2000

INVERNESS -- As the most severe drought on record leaves lakebeds exposed and turns forests into tinder, several of the county's large water users have received notices that they were using more water than allowed by their permits from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

During the scorching summer months, four golf courses -- El Diablo Golf and Country Club, Black Diamond Ranch, the Skyview course in Citrus Hills and the Inverness Golf and Country Club -- altogether pumped an average of 675,729 gallons per day more than their permits allow, Swiftmud general counsel Bill Bilenky said.

Of course, that's just a drop in the bucket, so to speak, of the 5.4-million gallons per day that Citrus golf courses are allowed to draw from the ground, but Bilenky said Swiftmud takes any excess use seriously.

"Any time there is a consistent overpumpage, that's a concern of ours," Bilenky said. "Certainly when you have someone using twice their permitted quantities, that's a severe overpumpage situation."

El Diablo was the worst offender, using more than double its permitted amount over the summer. Its soaring water use continued through November, when the course used an average of 417,418 gallons per day, compared with the 259,300 gallons per day it is allowed under current drought conditions.

Swiftmud's governing board voted last week to fine El Diablo $20,796 unless the course agrees to a plan to water within the limits, Bilenky said.

"They have a lot of opportunities to work out compliance before an actual monetary penalty is imposed," Bilenky said.

El Diablo general manager Nathan Pyles said he may have used some extra water to help the overseeded ryegrass take hold during the first 60 days, as Swiftmud regulations allow. But he said he doubted that the course used as much water as Swiftmud records indicate.

"There's no way possible," he said.

Pyles said since receiving a November notice from Swiftmud, the course has cut back its watering and is looking into "xeriscape" -- replacing thirsty greenery with plants that need less water.

After the Swiftmud board voted on the fine, but before the 30-day compliance window had closed, El Diablo submitted a plan to bring its water use back within its allowed amounts.

"We want to reduce the water use on our end before we ask for more," Pyles said.

But the golf course likely will ask Swiftmud to increase the amount of water it is permitted to use, he said, because the current permit simply does not provide enough for the 225-acre site.

"Every golf course is different, and (Swiftmud tries) to treat them all the same," Pyles said. "We have much more grass and common areas and playable areas than other golf clubs out there. "The amount they're saying we can have -- well, it isn't very reasonable to try to expect to maintain a golf course on that amount," Pyles said.

Growing needs

Black Diamond and Citrus Hills' Skyview course will not face any fines because they quickly came up with a plan for compliance: Both have asked Swiftmud to increase the amount of water they are allowed to use.

Black Diamond has asked for its permit to be increased from 1,266,000 gallons per day to 1,619,000 gallons per day. The Hampton Hills well, which serves the Skyview course and hundreds of surrounding Citrus Hills homes, has applied for an increase from 309,500 to 969,519 gallons per day. It will take Swiftmud about 90 days to review the requests and decide whether any increase is needed, Bilenky said.

"We're not asking for a permit that allows us a luxurious use of water," Citrus Hills attorney Eric Abel said. "We're asking to irrigate only the essential areas, according to Swiftmud, of our golf courses and lawns."

And those areas have grown over the years, Abel said. The back nine holes of the Skyview course are now under construction, and more than 100 new homes have hooked into the Hampton Hills well since the permit was last modified, he said.

"It's not that we're overusing the water for that area," Abel said. "What's happening is the consumption increased because the necessary properties to be irrigated have increased over time."

Black Diamond's permit reflects the amount of water that would be needed for 36 regulation holes and a proposed nine-hole executive course. But the developer decided to build those last nine holes last year at the larger regulation size instead, adding about 40 acres of grass to the area that needs watering, attorney Clark Stillwell said.

Watering those extra acres was the reason Black Diamond used an average of 268,213 gallons per day more than its permit allowed during the summer, Stillwell said.

"We went back, gave (Swiftmud) an accurate picture of the number of acres being watered, and, based on their standard formula, we would not be in violation," Stillwell said.

In the meantime, Black Diamond has scaled back its watering within its permitted amount. Last month, the course used an average of 1,092,641 gallons per day.

The overwatering at the fourth golf course, Inverness Golf and Country Club, was the result of a "misunderstanding" about how much water could be used, superintendent Sid Hatten said.

Normally, the course is permitted to use 151,400 gallons per day, or 164,000 gallons per day during current drought conditions. Last month, Inverness Golf and Country Club averaged 215,937 gallons per day.

"I've changed my (watering) schedule and changed the amount that I'm pumping," Hatten said. "We had a misunderstanding on the amount I was allowed to pump, but now that's all straightened out."

The golf course has two wells, and Hatten originally thought that the permit allowed him to pump up to 151,400 gallons per day from each one, he wrote in a Dec. 1 letter to Swiftmud. As it turns out, the total water use from both wells should not exceed the permitted amount. Hatten said that he has since cut back on his water use and now averages about 75,000 to 80,000 gallons per day.

"I am now pumping within their guidelines," he said.

Making up for lost rain

Those Citrus golf courses were among the 46 large water users in Swiftmud's 16-county district that were flagged last month as overpumpers.

The review 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 estimated 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, Bilenky 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 agmod program.

The model starts with the amount of water the plants need 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.

As the district weathered a bone-dry summer, Swiftmud recalculated the water permits for farmers, golf courses and others to show the extra irrigation allowed 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 slightly 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 from what golf courses use, and can survive on the once-a-week watering that Swiftmud restrictions currently allow, he said.

He also noted that water uses directly tied to livelihood take priority over "luxury" uses.

"Grass for the homeowner is a luxury," Hewer said. "It does not become a necessity like agriculture or a business like a golf course."

The same sacrifice

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. It asked them to bring their water use back into compliance within 30 days or face hefty fines.

With that monthlong grace period ending last week, only 10 of the overpumpers in the district had not provided Swiftmud with a satisfactory plan for coming back into compliance. Swiftmud's governing board initiated the process to fine those pumpers, including El Diablo, an amount based on how much extra water they had used.

Those users can avoid the fine by agreeing to a plan to come back into compliance, as El Diablo is now trying to do. If they do not come into compliance, the matter would go before an administrative hearing officer and possibly even a circuit court.

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

Such compliance has never been more important, Coogler said, because the 16-county district is finishing what may be its driest season on record.

The district received just 34.83 inches of rain from January through 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 37.81 inches of rain.

In the northern part of the district, which includes Citrus and Hernando counties, 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 on Tuesday, emphasizing the importance of conservation. "They're not; they're below the low levels. And the forecast for rain is not good."

Residents such as Ray Morris have watched the lakes retreat from their once-waterfront homes. Morris, 64, said the waters have receded 70 feet from the sea wall at his Duval Island 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 snowbirds come down, and they want nice green golf courses," he said. "I think it's a waste of water, personally."

But Coogler said Swiftmud is working to bring the few violators back into compliance. In the case of Black Diamond, where Coogler lives, the course simply needs a permit modification that accurately reflects the amount of grass to be watered, he said.

"They were pumping just enough to maintain the golf courses. That was an overpumpage situation because they had not changed the amount needed (on their permit)," Coogler said. "The management district has traditionally tried to work with people when errors like that occur."

As for the restrictions governing the use of water on lawns, golf courses and everywhere else, Coogler said Swiftmud "looked at the science" of each type of use to develop fair rules for everyone.

"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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