Tuesday's drought summit at the Tampa Convention Center made one thing clear: The region needs to make fundamental changes in how it consumes water. Banning car washes and installing low-flow toilets while waiting for the summer rains only gets west-central Florida's 4 million people so far. That reality has sunk in — 42 months into one of the worst droughts in history. The big question is whether the area's elected leaders will move beyond nodding their heads and start adopting conservation and land-use policies that could make a real difference.
In the end, it was striking how short the summit fell in addressing the larger policy choices the region faces. A climatologist pointed to the tie between growth and changing rainfall patterns. But no one — no water manager, conservationist or elected official — took the debate to the next step: How can the region limit sprawl? What can area governments do to wean people from landscaping with water-heavy turf? What new, alternative water supply projects should be on the table? How can the region integrate its water policy with economic development efforts? And in a crisis, should area governments standardize their watering rules to more effectively communicate the problem to the public?
This is not to criticize Tampa Bay Water, the region's water supplier, which organized the summit of area governments. Tuesday's meeting was more of a technical discussion at the staff level about the severity of the drought, future weather patterns and options for saving the surface and groundwater supply. If anything, Tampa Bay Water contributed to the debate by laying a foundation for policy changes that will take months, if not years, of public vetting. It also emphasized good immediate steps the region can adopt such as imposing a surcharge on water hogs and making it more affordable for residents to hook up to reclaimed water.
The area's elected leaders need to take the discussion from here. They have a vehicle in Tampa Bay Water to broaden their focus from supply to conservation. If droughts worsen and become more routine, as was suggested Tuesday, the region clearly needs more in its arsenal than emergency restrictions that ban overnight outdoor watering. Tuesday's meeting was a start in finding a comprehensive course.