Water rations to test SW Fla.
Strictest regulations ever likely imposed this week

By Rachel Myers


December 09, 2007




Southwest Florida is bracing this week for what are expected to be the most stringent water restrictions ever imposed on the area.

The South Florida Water Management District likely will propose Phase III restrictions to its governing board in
West Palm Beach on Wednesday, which would mean once-a-week lawn irrigation for residents and a 45 percent reduction in water usage for commercial customers.

Such restrictions have been imposed on the state's east coast, but never here, officials say.

With perilously low water levels in Lake Okeechobee and a weak rainy season that produced 10 inches below the average in the area, there's a reason why belt-tightening is in order.

But the prospect of brown grass, withered crops, low water pressure and unrelenting brush fires has many concerned. Some municipalities will be asking for exceptions, while others, like
Cape Coral, will be asking for an exemption.

It's not clear where the SFWMD might bend, but spokeswoman Susan Sanders said adjustments are likely.

"Although we truly won't know until the board meets, I really doubt the order will be imposed verbatim the way it's written," she said. "It will probably be some combination of modifications, just like when we went into Phase II restrictions."


Lee County has been under Phase II since April, but it didn't have much effect on residents because the county had already voluntarily enacted twice-a-week watering restrictions in 2005. Some cities created their own, stricter, ordinances. The main practice that changed, Sanders said, was more limited hours during which residents could water.

Since April, when required restrictions went into effect, there have been a reported 1,375 watering citations issued in the county and 1,290 warnings. Each city sets its own schedule of fines, ranging from $25 to $500 for residential and $500 to $10,000 for commercial.

Mike Titmus, chief code enforcement manager in
Fort Myers, said most of the violations are on commercial property owners. But the biggest challenge with new restrictions will be informing the public.

"We'll try to take it easy on people the first week or so," he said. "We're not looking to jam people up financially. Most people want to do what is expected of them, and it's really the repeat offenders we're after."

Cape Coral resident Diane Englund was in line at the police department Thursday to pay a $25 fine for her first offense. She said the power went out, which tripped up the timing on her sprinklers.

"I have to admit, I watch The Weather Channel, and I do understand the state is in a drought situation," she said. "But to go to one day a week is just crazy. It's going to get pretty brown out here."

Fort Myers resident Darlene Tompkins gardens exotic plants and doesn't know how they will hold up with less water.

"It's going to be tough," she said. "But I know we're in a water shortage, so we have to do something."

Even though her grass is getting brown, Fort Myers resident Melissa Crouse said she is all right with the proposed restrictions. Crouse doesn't usually water her lawn and said the environment was more important to her than having a healthy lawn.

"Grass always gets green again in the summer," she said.

Fire danger

The risk of fire is what worries Hank Graham, spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry. He said the arid weather creates prime fire conditions, and he fears further restrictions will worsen the situation.

"In theory, when you have green lawns, that acts as a fire break," Graham said. "If we go into Phase III, we're going to see a lot of landscape plants start to die out, which will most definitely add to the already bad fire conditions."

While it's wise to create Florida-friendly landscapes, which consist of native shrubs that are more likely to live through dry conditions, Graham said people shouldn't try to plant anything new at this point in the season. The best move for residents now is to check for dead or dying plants and remove them.

Craig Aberbach, division chief with the Cape Coral Fire Department, said Phase III shouldn't have significant impact on firefighting capabilities because his department, like several in the county, transports canal water with tanker trucks.

"Typically, when we're fighting fires in wooded areas, we use different tactics, so we won't need to access the hydrants," he said. "Even with structure fires, low water pressure shouldn't be an issue because we can just pull up to a canal and get water from there."


But low pressure problems are a concern for many of the area's utility companies. Patricia DiPiero, spokeswoman for Lee County Utilities, said her department agrees with the spirit of the restrictions, but wants to make sure the SFWMD staggers the days so everyone won't water on the same day.

"Our system was designed to run a certain way," she said. "If you force it all on the same day, it's going to make it very difficult in terms of pressure."

But Sanders said that's been a common misunderstanding.

"I don't know the exact days they're going to use, but it's probably still going to be odd- and even-numbered addresses like it is now," she said. "I think that's some of the confusion. People are thinking if we go to Phase III, everyone will have to water on the same day. That's not the case."

George Reilly, utilities director for Cape Coral, said council will vote Monday to ask the district for a complete exemption because of its reuse system for irrigation, which produces 70 to 80 million gallons a week and can only store so much at a time. Whatever isn't used will be flushed into the
Caloosahatchee River.

"We've invested in this system as a proactive approach to water conservation, and it doesn't affect the groundwater that the district is concerned about," Reilly said. "We ought to be treated differently."

Throughout the 16-county area the district covers, there were 827 variance applications for exceptions received since April. Of those, 521 were approved, 183 were denied, 118 were withdrawn and five are still in processing. Sanders said the district has been meeting with stakeholders since April in an attempt to open a dialogue and address concerns.

Regardless of what the governing board decides, utility customers shouldn't expect a break on their bill for using less water. For example, the $9.50 flat rate paid by customers in the Cape is mostly for the service provided, not the actual water, Reilly said.

Business running dry

Some who are anticipating a substantially larger strain on their wallets are those in agriculture.

Terrence McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, said a recent study determined the drought alone could strike the industry with losses of as much as $100 million monthly and $1 billion over the next 12 months.

South Florida produces roughly 80 percent of the nation's domestic fruits and vegetables in the winter, he said, and farmers will be planting fewer crops, which will drive up food prices.

The golfing industry also is expected to take a hit. Because the Phase III restrictions call for a 45 percent reduction of water use, Matt Taylor, president of the Florida Golf Course Superintendents Association, said courses will have to be picky about which areas will get the most water, with tees and greens drinking up the most, and fairways soaking significantly less. The courses that have reuse water available will see less damage, he said.

"I don't think it will affect business too much because people will still golf, but the economic impact will be the loss of turf and plants," he said. "A lot of that will have to be replanted in the spring. I think that's going to be a real issue down the road."

Golf is just one of the draws to the area. But as more people move in, Sanders said fewer commercial watering permits and renewals are likely to be issued. Also with population growth is the need for residents to realize water use will have a greater impact on the total supply, she said.

Fort Myers resident Keith McGee believes being allowed to water is a privilege. "It's one of those deals as a community, we have to look out for each other," he said. "If you see your neighbor watering when he shouldn't be, you should let him know. Otherwise, we're going to have even bigger problems."