Fla. may squeeze water use tighter

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Fla. may squeeze water use tighter

By Deborah Sharp USA TODAY

MIAMI -- Some 6 million people in southern Florida have been forced to meet stringent water-use restrictions in a region more accustomed to floods than withering drought.

Gripped by the worst drought in the state in a century, water managers have issued cuts in lawn watering and residential car washing.

''We haven't seen the worst of it yet,'' warns Bruce Adams, conservation officer for the South Florida Water Management District. The district oversees water in the state's most populous region, 16 counties stretching from south of Orlando to Miami and the Florida Keys.

Among signs of the drought: Fishing boats mired in mud on Lake Okeechobee, which is 3 feet below normal, and parched alligators prowling subdivisions in search of water.

''Alligators are ending up in places they're normally not found, like people's driveways,'' says Jim Huffstodt of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The agency's nuisance-gator trappers corralled 102 in a 10-county region last month, more than double the number they removed in February of last year. Huffstodt says the drought has coincided with mating season, when the reptiles are prone to roam.

In response to a drought entering its third year in parts of Florida, officials in four of the state's five water-management districts have levied voluntary or mandatory cutbacks. Central Florida is suffering the most. Wildfires broke out earlier this year. In Tampa, restrictions on water use began last year.

On Tuesday, the South Florida Water Management District Board considered the toughest measures yet, including bans on outdoor fountains and restrictions on car washes and golf courses. Board members held off, however. Citing heavy rains last week, they expanded the hours residents may water lawns and wash their vehicles.

Though wet and dry cycles are normal in Florida, this drought's length and severity have sparked alarm.

The dry weather is partly a result of La Niņa, a weather pattern characterized by cooler Pacific Ocean temperatures and warm, dry winters in the nation's southern half.

Parts of Georgia have been so dry that the state is paying farmers not to irrigate. Drought also has hit parts of Washington state and Oregon, Montana's high plains, and regions of Texas and New Mexico.

Unlike drier states out west, a Florida-style drought does not mean a lack of rain. It means less rain than the usual drenching that feeds Florida's numerous rivers, lakes and the underground supplies of water called aquifers. More than 90% of Floridians' drinking water is drawn from aquifers.

The state normally receives up to 55 inches of rain a year. But Florida's flat geography and intricate flood-control system mean much of the heaviest rain rushes out -- or is pumped out -- to sea before it can seep down to the aquifers.

Accustomed to cheap and plentiful water, Floridians face an attitude adjustment over the need to conserve. Average consumption is about 175 gallons a person a day, about 25% more than the national average.

''We're spoiled,'' says Julie Leonard, a manager for Fort Lauderdale's utilities department. ''We turn on the tap, we have water.''

Leonard fields complaints about brown lawns and feeble water pressure, which has been reduced by 30% to the city's 58,000 customers. One woman complained that she shouldn't have to suffer water restrictions to save Everglades animals.

''I try to make people understand. This is serious,'' Leonard says. ''This is a matter of whether you're going to be able to shower or cook. What happens to your lawn may not really matter.''


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 28, 2001

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