Florida Water managers prepare for crisis

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DROUGHT IN SOUTHWEST FLORIDA Water managers prepare for crisis posted 11/28/00 By Victor Hull STAFF WRITER For more information about water conservation, contact the Southwest Florida Water Management District at (800) 423-1476 or on the Web at www.swfwmd. state.fl.us.

In an indication of the severity of Southwest Florida's ongoing drought, regional water managers on Tuesday gave a Tampa Bay utility access to emergency water sources and threatened some users with fines for exceeding their permitted allotments.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District spent much of its regular monthly board meeting in Brooksville debating what to do about the region's worsening water supply conditions.

The agency's hydrologic experts told the board that many lakes, rivers and streams are at record low levels heading into the traditionally dry, six-month winter and spring season.

If the trend continues and there is no prediction of the higher-than-normal rainfall needed to break the drought over the next several months Southwest Florida could face an unprecedented water supply crisis next year.

"The conditions are very bad," said Michael Molligan, spokesman for the district that controls water resources across a 16-county area, including Manatee, Sarasota and most of Charlotte. "They're worse than last year, and worse than they should be at the end of May and we still have six months to go until the start of the rainy season.

"We're very concerned about how we're going to get through the spring."

The city of Tampa's circumstances are most dire, Molligan said. Tampa's reservoir on the Hillsborough River is already low. In response, the water management district agreed to give the city emergency permission to pump water from a sinkhole and a canal to augment its reserves.

The agency gave Tampa similar relief last April, well into the spring dry season. Tampa drew from the extra sources until August, when summer rain provided temporary relief.

"They're already stressed," Molligan said.

The district also is considering a schedule of fines to levy against water permit holders who exceed their pumping limits. Last spring, the agency found 227 permit holders who were overpumping. About 50 of them are still above the caps.

The district sent letters to the violators, informing them they have 30 days to come into compliance or face fines.

Late Tuesday, the board was still considering the amount of fines to levy for permit holders who don't reduce their use during the 30-day grace period.

Two users in Manatee County, Hunsader Farms and the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, and one in Sarasota, the Marina Bay Association Inc., received letters, Molligan said. No letters were sent to Charlotte permit holders.

Districtwide, the violators include public utilities, golf courses and farmers.

Molligan said the district has never before threatened such fines.

"We want everyone to know we're serious about this," Molligan said.

In addition, the agency has sent letters to local government officials, utilities and water permit holders urging them to conserve water. The district also wants local governments to crack down on homeowners violating the agency's once-a-week lawn watering restriction.

The district's restrictions limit lawn irrigation to Sundays for homeowners with odd-number addresses and Tuesdays for even-numbered addresses.

"There is a sense of some people that the drought is over," Molligan said. "It isn't.

"We can't watch everybody 24 hours a day. We need to make sure everyone knows there's going to be penalties."

So far, the district has resisted an outright ban on lawn watering. But it is pressing utilities to adopt higher rates for excess water use and other measures to promote more conservation.

Manatee County's water supply, which also serves much of Sarasota County, is in better shape than it was at this time last year. But Charlotte, which draws from the Peace River, is worse off.

Except for July, the Peace River has set records for low flows monthly since last March. Before some modest rain over the weekend, the river flow had dropped to 15 cubic feet per second. The previous low for this time of year was 60 cubic feet per second.

A public utility supplying Charlotte's water from the Peace has been drawing from reserves instead of the river since mid-October, about four months earlier in the dry season compared with last year.

Sam Stone, environmental coordinator for the Peace River-Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority, said that, at the same time, demand is higher and reserves are lower.

The authority is operated jointly by Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties. The authority and its members have set up a task force to address the problem.

Southwest Florida's drought dates back more than two years. Rainfall in some parts of the region has been a more than a foot below normal over that span.

Molligan said the region has experienced bad droughts before, "but never with as many people."

Sarasota County has decided to continue to follow the water management district's once-a-week watering restrictions rather than implement its own. Before the district decided last April to cut lawn water from twice a week to once a week, Sarasota County had voted to impose its own once-a-week limitation.

The local ordinance, approved last January, was to have taken effect Dec. 1. But to avoid confusion, the county decided to follow the district's guidelines.

For more information about water conservation, contact the Southwest Florida Water Management District at (800) 423-1476 or on the Web at www.swfwmd.state.fl.us.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 29, 2000

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