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Wanted: aggressive strategy to solve Florida water woes

Donald Trump must be quaking in his golf shoes.

Acting on a tip, South Florida water managers last Monday night discovered Palm Beach's ritzy Trump International Golf Club sprinkling the greens with water. That's a violation of water shortage rules that could carry a fine of up to $1,000.

Get real. Trump probably burns through that kind of chump change in lost golf balls every week.

Look to the right at the national drought map. That ever-enlarging black blotch over Central Florida says the water shortage here is far, far worse than in any other part of the United States.

What if some economic competitor such as Dallas or Denver or Washington sent this same map to companies considering relocation or expansion? Imagine the cover letter:

Dear Business Prospect:

Did you know Central Florida is suffering its worst drought in 200 years? Tampa Bay plans to build a big reservoir, but that has not happened yet. Tampa Bay plans to build the country's biggest desalination plant to extract fresh water from saltwater, but construction has not started yet. Tampa Bay's water future is cloudy. Do you really want to put your business in harm's way?

No such corporate recruitment letter exists. Not yet.

But what if the Florida drought continues? Without a more aggressive strategy to conserve and secure new freshwater sources, the Tampa Bay area and other parts of Florida could find that the water shortage may soon inflict widespread financial damage.

Oh what headlines we could see if today's drought truly forced a long-term crisis.

Skyrocketing water prices prompt residents to bathe in champagne.

Area's last swimming pool converts to "sunken' patio.

New gated community approved after promise to build own pipeline to Mississippi.

Joking aside, Florida's drought already is taking an economic toll:

CITRUS: The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates this season's crop will be down 10-million boxes from last year's 233-million because of dry weather.

PRICES: The residential price of water will continue to rise as Florida taps alternative but more expensive sources of potable water. In St. Petersburg, for example, water rates will rise 5 percent in April. And water and sewer rates will increase an estimated 47 percent over the next five years.

FARMS AND RANCHES: Plants are not germinating or are underweight, while stressed cattle are not reproducing.

LANDSCAPING: Tougher water restrictions are hurting the business of lawn services, nurseries and commercial landscaping companies. Nearly half of the water used in the bay area is used on landscaping.

TOURISM: Levels of Lake Okeechobee and many other freshwater lakes are at record lows, depressing the state's sizeable fishing and boating business.

COASTAL COMMUNITIES: Saltwater will seep into diminished freshwater wells near the Gulf and Atlantic coasts as the Army Corps of Engineers increasingly diverts water to the Everglades and away from coastal wells and canals.

WILDFIRES: Florida and the feds are spending large sums of public funds to cover the cost of firefighters and support used to control a growing volume of fires fueled by dry weather.

So far, the Tampa Bay area's business community is on high drought alert.

"No project has been turned down because of an inability to deliver water to the project in a timely manner," Tampa Bay Partnership executive director Stuart Rogel says. "No business has made a decision not to move here because of the water situation. As far as we know."

But the partnership tracks the drought at the request of its business members. The group threw its weight behind efforts by the regional Tampa Bay Water organization to push increased conservation. The partnership backs plans to build a new reservoir in the Brandon area, as well as a desalination plant at the TECO Energy Big Bend power plant site on Tampa Bay.

The desalination plant, once up and running in late 2002, is expected to produce 25-million gallons of potable water daily from Tampa Bay waters. The project is backed by private Poseidon Resources and will be built and operated by Covanta Energy Corp. Covanta is the new name, as of last Monday, of Ogden Corp.

When proposed, Tampa Bay's desalination plant was touted as the biggest such facility (using reverse osmosis to filter saltwater) in the country. But that record already is falling to water demands elsewhere in the nation. Using its Tampa Bay model, Poseidon Resources is committed to build larger desalination plants in Freeport, Texas, and Long Beach, Calif. Other plants are under discussion.

Water shortages are hurting other regions of the country.

California's messy deregulation of its electricity market forced the state to rely more on power from nearby states. But Oregon and Washington, normally providers of cheap hydro-electric power, have such low water levels in their rivers that they can't meet both their own power needs and the extra demand from California.

In Washington, Gov. Gary Locke last week officially declared a drought emergency.

Nationwide, some studies say as much as $1-trillion is needed over the next 20 years to upgrade and replace the nation's aging and deteriorating water infrastructure.

Optimistic Floridians assume the current drought will continue through the dry spring, then ease with summer thunderstorms.

But will this drought really end? It's been building for several years. Are we really just rehearsing for the Big One brought on by continued global warming?

President Bush's reversal last week on his campaign pledge to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants sends a disturbing message. It seems short-term policies to appease the U.S. energy industry are again more important than any national stand to confront a chief cause of global warming.

Some weather experts think the El Nino effect that brought record rains to Florida in 1997 and 1998 may reappear in the next year or two.

An El Nino climate would probably ease much of Florida's immediate drought problems. But if the weather pattern is consistent, when El Nino dissipates, Florida could face yet another serious dry spell.

Are we facing a pendulum climate in Florida? Will we always be too wet or too dry? Either way, the state's water woes won't command much respect until Florida embraces a bolder plan to use water more efficiently.

Seek new water sources. Improve the distribution of existing sources. Reduce demand. Recycle.

Oh yeah. And demand more than pocket change from scofflaws like Donald Trump.

_ Robert Trigaux can be reached at or (727) 893-8405.

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