Tighter water restrictions to be considered

By Robert P. King

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

WEST PALM BEACH Water managers are set to vote Thursday on a new batch of conservation measures that would limit lawn sprinkling to one day a week throughout South and Central Florida for the first time ever.

The proposal also would shift watering from the weekends to weekdays: Watering would be allowed on Mondays for homes at odd-numbered addresses and on Thursdays for even-numbered addresses.

And in a switch from existing morning-only watering, residents could choose between irrigating in the early morning or early evening. But no cheating - you'll have to pick one or the other.

The unprecedented restrictions are the latest response to an unprecedented water shortage: The region is suffering its first multiyear drought in 25 years, one that threatens to drain Lake Okeechobee to depths not seen since before written records began.

The South Florida Water Management District would put the limits into effect Jan. 15 throughout its 16-county territory, giving cities and counties time to begin enforcing them, spokesman Jesus Rodriguez said today. The district's board is set to vote on the rules Thursday afternoon at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach.

"We want to focus our resources in the next month on public awareness and public education," Rodriguez said. He said the district expects local governments to impose fines and other penalties for violators as soon as the new limits kick in.

Water customers in West Palm Beach, Lake Worth and Lantana are already limited to irrigating their lawns one day a week, and similarly tough restrictions are in place for many residents around Lake Okeechobee. But most people from Fort Pierce to Key West have been allowed to water two days a week.

The proposed limits for lawns would be accompanied by heightened restrictions for farms, nurseries, golf courses and other commercial water users.

The district has tinkered with the restrictions repeatedly since late 2006 - at first making them voluntary, then mandatory - as the drought has tightened its grip. Water managers temporarily lessened most restrictions for communities along the coast in July, when canals and wellfields were flush with summer rains.

In addition to trying to enforce conservation during the drought, the district is working on permanent restrictions that would take effect once the crisis ends.

Today, Lake Okeechobee was at 10.18 feet above sea level - more than 4 feet below average for this time of year, and less than 1.4 feet above the all-time low it set in July. Water levels are about 6 inches below regulation in the northern Everglades, the main reservoir for much of coastal Palm Beach County.