The restrictions on outdoor watering have saved the region hundreds of millions of gallons of water in this, the third year of a drought. That is real progress — both in conserving the actual supply and in changing public attitudes toward consumption. The Southwest Florida Water Management District should renew the restrictions when its governing board meets today. The region needs to hold on for at least a few more weeks until the start of the summer rainy season.
In response to the drought, Swiftmud has limited outdoor watering to once a week in its entire 16-county west-central Florida area since January 2007. Some jurisdictions have tighter limits. Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties are limited to watering only four hours a week, with some exceptions for hand watering. The use of outdoor fountains and residential car washing are banned, and buildings with water-based cooling units must keep the temperature no lower than 78 degrees.
The restrictions have helped regional water managers cope with the lack of rain and ongoing problems with the area's water supply system. They also have driven home the message that residents need to conserve. The heavy rains in May helped area rivers recover, but the region still has a double-digit rainfall deficit and a shortage of surface water. The district board should renew the restrictions, which are set to expire June 30, for several weeks. That allows enough time for the traditional rainy season to begin. If the summer rain pattern holds, the district could always relax the restrictions next month.
It won't hurt residents to wait another couple weeks to wash their cars, use their fountains or pressure-wash their homes. The drought may continue. This won't be the end of watering restrictions, either. Water managers likely will impose new restrictions when the regional reservoir is drained for a two-year repair job beginning in 2012. The worst message to send now, even before the rain comes, would be to mislead residents into believing the crisis is over. The water board should revisit this issue in several weeks. It has taken the public a long time to develop a new regard for conservation, and the district needs to be careful not to take a major step back.