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Time for Hernando to tighten rules on water use

It's pretty simple, really.

You raise the speed limit, people are going to drive faster, and probably smash up more cars. You give your kids cookies whenever they want, they'll eat a bunch of them, and, pretty soon, get fat.

You let homeowners water more and, sure enough, they'll do it — draining lakes and reducing onetime landmark rivers to sad trickles.

You may remember that last May, after four years of allowing property owners to irrigate lawns only once a week, the Hernando County Commission approved a return to twice-a-week watering.

It was just for a couple of months, commissioners said, long enough to give homeowners a chance to resuscitate their precious Floratam lawns after last winter's freezes.

It didn't work out that way, as is often the case when supposedly temporary measures are politically popular. Twice-a-week watering has since been extended two times, and in July the commission will get to decide whether to extend it again.

By then, said county water conservation coordinator Alys Brockway, commissioners will have an entire year's worth of data. This nice big sample will allow them to compare how much water people use under the different watering schedules.

But guess what?

We already have data, and it tells us what a moderately bright toddler would realize intuitively: County water customers used more water when they were allowed to water more frequently — 285 million gallons more in 2011 than in 2010.

That significant bump in use, mind you, came with only seven months of relaxed watering restrictions. What will we see after a year? Confident that I know as much about this issue as the previously mentioned toddler, I'm going to predict the bump will be even bigger, that we'll see even more water dumped pointlessly on a kind of grass that can't survive here without around-the-clock life support in the form of irrigation and chemical pesticides and fertilizer.

Oddly, the report on 2011 water consumption was presented in a positive light at one of the county's water awareness seminars two weeks ago.

The text on the PowerPoint slide announced water use was down about 1.5 billion gallons from peak use at the height of the building boom, when the county was home to several thousand newly sodded yards that needed daily watering.

Brockway also noted that in 2010 — when the average resident served by the county used 145 gallons of water a day — Hernando met the long-term conservation goals required by its permit with the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Fine, but imagine a line of 145 1-gallon bottles of water lined up and tell me that limiting our average consumption to that amount still looks like some kind of environmental victory.

It's not. Dramatically reducing water use could be a snap, easily accomplished with available technology and a decent amount of public will. This is the theme of a recent book by veteran Florida Trend writer Cynthia Barnett titled Blue Revolution.

It was also one of the main messages of the water awareness seminar, which made the spin placed on the county's rate of water use seem even stranger.

Speaker Marty Wanielista, longtime director of the Stormwater Management Academy at the University of Central Florida, showed slide after slide of projects he had helped design, including roofs covered with shrubs and grass. By capturing rainfall, air conditioning condensation and parking-lot runoff, he explained, many of the owners of these properties had reduced their use of fresh groundwater to nearly zero.

In the long run they will even save money. But savings — of water and cash — are possible without such big initial investments. When Floratam dies, as inevitably it does, replace it with something more sensible. Figure out how the heck you're using roughly 75 gallons of water inside the house — as the average person using county water does — and cut back.

Because, remember, any county or Swiftmud limits on water use are set because they are politically acceptable, not because they leave the environment the water it needs.

We all know about the long-term declines in the flow of the Weeki Wachee River. But after my father-in-law casually mentioned that Delta Woods Park was a lot prettier "before we lost the lake," I thought I'd ask for some historic water levels on the adjacent Lake Theresa.

The numbers came in two distinct chucks: sporadic monthly readings taken from 1968 to 1981, when my father-in-law bought his home in High Point, and more regular readings taken between 2003 and the present.

The average of the recent measurements was nearly 3 feet lower than the earlier ones, the difference between a basin generally full of shimmering water and wildlife and one that is covered in weeds and opportunistic pine saplings.

A long-term dip in rainfall is partly to blame for the falling levels, but so is the amount of water we're pumping from the aquifer under the lakes.

It doesn't seem like much of a victory.

Time for Hernando to tighten rules on water use 02/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 16, 2012 7:41pm]
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