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Be wise with water; drought is still with us

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Although the drought-driven water supply emergency in most of the Southwest Florida Water Management District no longer exists, water resources remain severely stressed at the Tampa Bay Water well fields.

In April 2000, in response to an unprecedented drought that severely affected the water resources, the Swiftmud governing board passed an executive order limiting watering to one day per week. At that time, 15 key groundwater monitoring stations were showing record low levels for the month of April. Four of those 15 stations were lower than they had ever been during any month. Three rivers _ Hillsborough, Peace and Withlacoochee _ were setting record low flows.

As the drought continued earlier this year, the governing board passed another executive order to address the city of Tampa public health and safety emergency and further, Tampa Bay Water's exceeding permit levels on drawing water from its 11 consolidated well fields. The drought had rendered the Hillsborough River incapable of meeting the water supply needs of the city.

Under the Tampa Bay emergency order, the people responded and they responded well. Many local governments began important water conservation measures. For example, Tampa Bay area governments took positive steps toward increasing water use efficiencies, including developing ordinances that promote water-wise landscapes, developing effective water-conserving rate structures that charge heavy users a higher rate, and seeking ways to maximize use of reclaimed water.

Thanks to a good rainy season and Tropical Storm Gabrielle, groundwater levels and river flows have returned to normal. The Hillsborough River has recovered and is meeting Tampa's water supply needs. However, water resources at Tampa Bay Water's central well fields remain significantly stressed. As a result of these conditions, the district governing board recently took the following actions:

Lifted the one-day watering restrictions and returned to the two-day watering schedule throughout the 16-county district, except for those areas served by the Tampa Bay Water consolidated permit. The board will rescind the order for those areas when the resources have recovered.

Lifted the Tampa Bay emergency order.

During these cool fall and winter months when plants grow slowly, proper one day a week watering is sufficient for most landscaping.

Also, please know that low volume irrigation for nonturf areas is not restricted. Low volume irrigation is very efficient and beneficial for high quality plant growth.

There are sure to be future droughts. We must continue our efforts and take positive steps toward developing a drought-resistant water supply, or we will face future uncertainties about our ability to provide this most basic of human needs _ water.

The water management district strongly urges and encourages local governments to continue developing programs begun under the emergency order to conserve water.

Let's learn from history, rather than simply repeating it through inaction. New conservation programs, such as water-wise landscape ordinances and water-conserving rate structures, can go a long way toward providing for a sustainable water supply and reducing the risk of future public health and safety water supply emergencies.

This drought has served as a reminder how precious, fragile, and unpredictable our water resources are. Let's not allow this wakeup call to go unheeded.

_ Ronnie Duncan is chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District governing board.

Editor's note: Much, but not all, of Pasco County is governed by the Tampa Bay Water permit and must continue to follow the one-day-per-week watering schedule. To avoid confusion and to simplify enforcement, the Pasco County Commission decided last week to keep the limitation uniform and not allow twice-a-week watering in some portions of the county.