S. Florida Struggles With Water Shortage

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S. Florida Struggles With Water Shortage

By Sue Anne Pressley Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, February 17, 2001; Page A03

MIAMI -- At his tackle shop near Lake Okeechobee, Bubba Helton has grown accustomed to listening to the boaters' grumbles this winter season. Water levels at the nation's second-largest freshwater lake -- the "Big Water" of the Seminoles, the reservoir for all of southeast Florida -- are critically, historically, low, and more boats are running aground than are catching crappie.

"It's making it hard for our northern visitors -- they're trying to navigate the lake and they're scared of it," Helton said. "There's not a whole lot you can say -- the whole continental United States is under a drought. We don't have no control over the man upstairs. But they're all retired, and to them, it's interfering with their recreation."

What happens up at Lake Okeechobee has a direct impact on the dense population centers of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Although much of South Florida's immediate water supply comes from underground aquifers, Lake Okeechobee on Palm Beach County's western edge, with its hundreds of miles of canals, levees and lock systems, provides the backup during the dry season. Unfortunately, the dry season here, extending now through May, also coincides with the tourist season, when thousands of additional consumers are demanding water.

Because of the already low water levels at Lake Okeechobee and drought conditions locally that are the worst since 1961, area water authorities have ordered a series of clampdowns on water use -- the latest being the most restrictive in recent history. But many residents, especially here in Miami-Dade County, do not seem to be getting the message.

Last week, officials with the South Florida Water Management District declared their first-ever Phase 2 -- or "severe" -- water shortage emergency along Florida's lower southeast coast. This limits lawn-watering or personal car-washing to two short periods a week, and strikes at what is most dear to the hearts of many South Florida homeowners: their emerald-green lawns.

"Our lawns are very important to us," said Anna Nelson, owner of a Miami landscaping firm. "Since we don't have seasons, we improvise by changing the kind of plants we have in our yards. The fact is, most people, especially those living in really nice neighborhoods, compete with each other when it comes to their yards."

Still, Nelson says her customers, informed of the restrictions, are trying to comply.

But in the lush Pine Hills section of south Miami-Dade last week, quite a few residents apparently were not heeding the lawn-watering rules. Watering is permissible on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. for addresses that end in odd numbers, and on Thursdays and Sundays, same hours, for even-numbered addresses.

"Mind your own business," one woman snapped as she crossed her green lawn and got into her car, when asked if her sprinkler was supposed to be on that afternoon.

District water officials concede it is hard to break the lawn-watering habits of a lifetime, but say that that is the easiest target, because 60 percent of the area's water use is outdoors. At a joint meeting last week of the county commission and the water management district, officials lamented the fact that South Floridians had not even made it halfway to a water conservation goal of 30 percent -- saving at most 11 percent to 12 percent. They also pledged to beef up their public information and enforcement campaigns.

Since Dec. 7, when the Phase 1, or moderate, water shortage was declared, police officers and inspectors with the Miami-Dade environmental resources management department have written more than 500 warning tickets, mainly to lawn-watering violators. Next time, offenders will receive $75 tickets that could grow to $500, and 60-day jail sentences for the misdemeanor offense, said Roman Gastesi, Miami-Dade director of the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees water supplies in 16 counties.

The only other time the region had even reached Phase 1 was 10 years ago, Gastesi said. Before the current dry season breaks in June, officials expect the area may move to Phase 3 -- or "extreme" -- restrictions.

Mindful of that possibility, officials also are asking residents to make small changes in their small habits.

"We're asking people to take shorter showers, turn off faucets when brushing teeth, and avoid nonessential flushes. Every time you flush, you use about five gallons of water," Gastesi said.

The message has gotten through to real estate agent Dick Bappert, who figures "you don't have any choice" but to watch the lawn fade to a brownish green. His Miami Shores yard is his pride and joy, and he lets it soak up every drop of water he can give it -- but only twice a week, at the designated hours.

"I don't need any of those big tickets right now," he said. "This is just a fact you have to accept -- it happens once in a while and it is completely out of your control."

Back in Lake Okeechobee, the Phase 2 restrictions have been in place longer, passage to Phase 3 seems imminent, and meteorologists and water officials are calling the drought the kind of event seen only once every 75 to 100 years. But they do see a silver lining in the cloudless skies. During the recent wet, El Niņo years, water levels in the lake were too high, choking off some plant and fish life. Now conditions are right for them to bounce back.

"Droughts and floods are part of Florida's natural cycle," said John Morgan, Lake Okeechobee regional director of the water management district. "And these low levels at Lake Okeechobee are incredibly beneficial to the habitat and the fisheries and the wildlife. There was too much water before. When the rain clouds come again, we will hopefully have a much healthier ecosystem."

Special correspondent Catharine Skipp contributed to this report.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), February 17, 2001


It's to bad the world is 2/3's water and we're gonna die of thirst eventually.

-- NdewTyme (NdewTyme@NdewTyme.com), February 17, 2001.

Story last updated at 6:10 p.m. on Tuesday, February 27, 2001 Governor, officials discuss worst drought in 200 years

By VICKIE CHACHERE Associated Press Writer

TAMPA, Fla. - Florida's worst drought in 200 years has increased wildfire threats, affected cattle reproduction and even cracked home foundations, Gov. Jeb Bush was told Tuesday during a meeting on the crisis.

Bush warned that the drought could affect every facet of life, from rivers running dry to wildfires. In some communities, the decreased water table has led to settling ground that has cracked walls and foundations, the governor was told.

The governor called for a statewide effort to conserve water and better manage it in the future. Only the western Panhandle is not in a water crisis.

"It's going to get worse," Bush said. "It's not going to get better for the next four or five months."

Climate experts are not predicting relief from the drought through August, well into what should have been the summer rainy season, Florida Department of Community Affairs Secretary Steve Seibert said.

More than two dozen water management and elected officials met with Bush for more than two hours to discuss the drought. Bush and the Florida Cabinet were in Tampa as part of the "Capital for a Day" program that brings the high-level meetings to various Florida cities.

"We are really all in the same boat, and that boat is about to run aground," said Marshall Bone, chairman of the Volusian Water Alliance, a water advisory group in Volusia County.

State officials warned the drought could have serious consequences for Florida industries ranging from tourism, as rivers and lakes dry up, to the high-tech industry, which uses large volumes of water during the manufacturing process.

The year is already shaping up to be disastrous for Florida's farmers and ranchers. Plants aren't germinating or are underweight and stressed cattle are not reproducing.

While water management remains a local issue, Bush has state agencies such as the Department of Community Affairs and the Department of Environmental Protection involved in the crisis.

Among steps being considered is capping free-flowing artesian wells and reviewing new water use applications to make sure the resource is being properly managed.

Officials also discussed long-term water management plans, including helping communities develop other water supplies, such as reclaimed water for landscaping, sea water desalination and demineralization of brackish groundwater.

Bush said the state's growth management rules need to be reworked to include water.

The governor said there needs to be adequate water, transportation and schools to support new development. But Bush did not venture into discussing the most radical of growth management measures, a building moratorium in communities that do not have enough water to support new development.

"Not that I want to make a political point of this, it's time to reevaluate how we organized ourselves and deal with our infrastructure," Bush said. "We are at a difficult time right now."

Water conservation education is the immediate concern.

Water officials said simple conservation methods and enforcement of watering rules has resulted in major cuts in water use, particularly in large metropolitan areas like Fort Lauderdale and Tampa where half of the water used is on landscaping.

"This is not about ratting on your neighbors because they are watering their lawns," said Frank Finch, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. "This is about the preservation of the public's drinking water supply."

A series of public service announcements featuring Bush encouraging Floridians to conserve water were released Tuesday to television stations statewide.

http://www.jacksonville.com/tu- online/apnews/stories/022701/D7AE33N00.html

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), February 27, 2001.

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