Palm Beach Post Editorial

One new water idea: Pay more, but use less

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

South Floridians may be tired of talking about saving water. Too bad. The South Florida Water Management District keeps the conversational ball rolling with a second water "summit" today in West Palm Beach, seeking ways to cope with prolonged drought.

This month, the district board decides whether to tighten restrictions. In April, after more meetings, the board votes on districtwide conservation recommendations. Using less water is the new normal, but crafting a new, year-round conservation policy that paradoxically will cost residents more for using less water is a challenge.

In addition to starting an education campaign to sell residents on the "pay-more-use-less" idea, the district must address inequities in its own rules. For example, few can make sense of regulations that limit the days individuals can water lawns, but not the amount of water used. The district can't allow water hogs to use as much as they are willing to pay for while others live with brown lawns and dead plants.

Still, the water summit brings the opportunity for exchanging conservation ideas, particularly with communities that successfully have cut use. While South Floridians reduced average daily use between 2000 and 2005, there's plenty of room for improvement. Palm Beach County dropped from 222 gallons to 215, Martin from 212 to 166, St. Lucie from 145 to 128 and Okeechobee from 103 to 90, the lowest in the state. Statewide, Floridians dropped from 174 gallons per day in 2000 to 158 in 2005.

Some ideas - low-flow toilets, less frequent flushing, rewards for tearing out thirsty turf grass in favor of drought-tolerant landscaping - are simple to implement and easy to promote. The Department of Environmental Protection already recognizes hotels that reduce water use by not changing sheets daily for long-term guests. Golf courses and farms can use more treated wastewater, and utilities will have to reconfigure their systems to provide it. Other ideas, such as a team of Drought-Buster Priuses that patrol Los Angeles neighborhoods to issue warnings and $150 tickets for untimely watering, sound enticing but might cost too much.

Despite a wet summer along the coast, Lake Okeechobee remains dangerously low, and very little rain fell in November. The best way to deal with a potential drought crisis is to save our way out of it.