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Hold line on water in this new reality

I got another reminder, as if I needed one, of the sad state of Florida's waters when I visited McKethan Lake over the weekend.

You may have heard old-timers talk about what a popular swimming hole this used to be, about how much fun they had hanging out on the raft in the middle of the lake and diving into the clean, deep water.

On Sunday — at the tail end of the rainy season, by the way — I saw what seems to be the new normal for McKethan Lake, about 7 miles north of Brooksville: a couple of shallow, coffee-colored pools of water covered with wispy green scum and surrounded by dense rings of aquatic weeds.

The signs saying that swimming is now prohibited seemed totally unnecessary. Who, after all, wants to swim in a swamp?

I bring this up because the Southwest Florida Water Management District will decide today whether to extend once-a-week watering restrictions or return to the normal schedule of watering twice a week.

Yes, of course the district's governing board should extend the restrictions.

Even after 12 months of normal rainfall, the district's lakes hold far less water than they have historically at this time of year; aquifer levels hover at the low end of the normal range.

But I'd like to see something bolder. I'd like to see the governing board make once-a-week watering the new, permanent standard.

And if the district doesn't do it, the county should.

In fact, I highly recommend this to county commissioners who want to add to their credentials as environmentalists while facing a minimum of political backlash.

I just don't think people are desperate to water twice a week.

I don't hear this from homeowners and neither does Alys Brockway, the county's water conservation coordinator. Mostly, she hears people apologizing because they feel bad about turning in neighbors who break the rules.

"They do it almost as a civic duty because they feel conserving water in the drought is too important,'' she said.

So, it seems, all the teaching she has done on this subject paid off. And that's one problem with swinging back and forth between two sets of standards.

Every time Swiftmud returns to once-a-week watering, as it has done twice in the past decade, Brockway and district staffers have to gear up their education campaigns all over again.

They have to tell people, for example, that even the thirstiest varieties of lawn grass get along just fine when irrigated once a week.

And they have to convince skeptics that, yes, watering less often really saves water. Since 2006, shortly before the current restrictions were imposed in January 2007, per-capita consumption of water from the county's utility has dropped from 184 to 158 gallons per day.

There's another reason to keep things as they are.

Swiftmud hydrologists say the apparent long-term declines in the levels of the district's lakes and rivers are due to dwindling rainfall.

Wet seasons aren't as consistently wet as they were 30 or 40 years ago; severe droughts come along every five or 10 years rather than once in a generation.

So, I say, our water-use rules should reflect what they tell us about rainfall and what we see in our lakes: Unfortunately, there's a new normal.

Hold line on water in this new reality 09/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 2, 2008 10:52am]
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