George Poitras tromped along the edges of Lake Century, heavy rubber wading boots protecting his feet and legs from any soaking that the small amount of water might inflict.
At each home along the lake, which lies south of Northcliffe Boulevard and east of U.S. 19, he paused to check whether white plastic piping led from the yard to the water _ a telltale sign of lake-fed lawn irrigation.
When he found pipes, Poitras, whose Kirkland Avenue home faces the lake, would snap a picture with the small camera hanging from his wrist and call over his partner in arms, neighbor Frank Termini, to help map the property and mark it on a log.
"This is a sin," Termini said after discovering the 17th connection along the lake in less than an hour. "You know what really (stinks)? They've affected everyone. It's just a sin."
But neither the state nor the county regulates irrigation from lakes. In fact, a state law first adopted in 1972 makes clear that no permits are required for domestic consumption of water by individual users. The only restrictions on that front are the lawn-watering rules set by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Poitras, Termini and a third neighbor, Steve Kerney, are pushing for action.
They worry, Kerney explained as he peered across the near-dry Century and Crescent lakes, that the lakes cannot recover properly from years of drought if those who live nearby suck away the standing water to keep their grass green. So they have asked county officials to stop people from drawing water out of the lakes, which are attached by a canal.
At the very least, the men said, the government should limit the level at which irrigation pipes can go into the lakes. To emphasize the reason, they pointed to pipes with obvious extensions to what appeared to be the lowest depths of the lake, to gain access to the little bit of water that remained.
"Pumping in a sensible fashion isn't the problem," Kerney said. "It's when it becomes the last drop that it becomes a problem."
In June, they brought their complaint to County Commissioner Chris Kingsley, who saw merit in their point and asked the county staff to investigate.
"You have an opportunity for a lot more natural habitat with the lakes filled up. So when we go through these periods of drought, it does exacerbate the concerns," Kingsley said.
But it's easier to express fears than it is to determine whether they translate into real trouble for which a solution is available, he said.
"I don't think we can stop people from doing it, or should, right now," Kingsley said. "This is not something I'm going to give up on. It's just premature to make a blanket decision."
Clouding the picture is a three-page memo on the subject that county Utilities Department director Kay Adams submitted to commissioners Tuesday, a week after having toured the lakes with the neighbors, Kingsley and a Swiftmud geologist. In the memo, Adams said the county owned the lakes, so it had control over their fate.
However, Adams wrote, Swiftmud geologists have determined that irrigation's effect on the lakes is almost nil _ about 3.8 inches per year, if 64 homes each use 4,500 gallons weekly for sprinkling and no water comes back into the lake.
The district also has made no bones about its unwillingness to allow counties to usurp its jurisdiction over water issues. Earlier this month, it sued Hernando County because commissioners rejected a well site based on issues that Swiftmud says they had no business considering, such as sinkhole activity.
"The county would not be able to address the issue of water use permitting" in the lakes matter, Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said. "However, they may have a land use issue. They have the authority to address how they want people going on their land."
If commissioners decide to act, Adams wrote, that would be their best recourse.
"The most appropriate restriction would probably be to determine a lake level at which irrigation withdrawals would be further limited by day and time (compared to the effective SWFWMD restrictions), or banned, until the lake returns to a designated level," she said.
"Under restrictions guided by the lake level," Adams wrote, "homeowners could continue to use the lake for irrigation under normal conditions, with the knowledge they will need to reduce or suspend usage when the lake is severely stressed by drought conditions."
She cautioned against regulating only one lake, though, and further reminded commissioners that homeowners might switch to wells, which might similarly affect the lakes' water levels. She recommended involving all affected residents before making a final decision.
Poitras said Adams' proposal was a good one, if the government puts teeth into the ordinance. Making rules that no one follows and that no one enforces is useless, he said.
And that, he contended, is not an option.
"The lake has come up, but not (to a level) to be complacent on what we're trying to do," Poitras said. "Something has got to be done before the whole area gets developed."
He and his neighbors still recall when the lakes were high enough for sailing, and fish were plentiful. A "no wake" sign and a handful of docks still stand in the grass as a reminder of that time.
"I've been coming down to this area 20 years, bought in '99," Termini said as he walked along the water's edge. "One of the reasons we bought in this area was the lake. I love to fish."
But now the water is too low for such recreation, he said. And he placed at least partial blame on the people who sprinkle their lawns with lake water.
The group confronted two neighbors who have pipes extending into the lake, challenging them to stop the practice. Murrell Wesley won their praise when he said he already had disconnected his system.
"Heck, that's my fishing hole," Wesley explained.
Andy Maywalt, an active Audubon Society member, said he also was stopping his system.
"I think there should be a level below which no pumping should be allowed," he said, getting a hearty congratulations from Poitras.
But not all neighbors have reacted similarly, Poitras said. They're more interested in their lawns than the lakes.
"There really is a very definite lack of concern for taking the water out," he said.
In addition to Kingsley, other commissioners said they, too, would support the request to have county staffers look closely at the matter for possible code changes.
The watering "doesn't seem fair to me," Commissioner Mary Aiken said. "Certain people get the benefit and others don't. . . . I hope we can do something to make it more equitable among the homeowners. It must irritate somebody a great deal if they've got a brownish-golden lawn."
Commissioner Diane Rowden noted that when she lived on Hunter's Lake in Spring Hill, almost every home used the lake for irrigation. That was before the drought dried it up, she said.
"Hunter's Lake isn't dry because they did it," Rowden said. "But now you have to look at things that might contribute to the draw-down of the lake."
Perhaps, she said, the commission needs to tell people to remove their pipes from the lakes.
State Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, also said the commission was the proper venue for action. He agreed that the draw-down might worsen water woes during times of drought but said the state Legislature is unlikely to deal with the concerns.
"It sounds like something that could and should be addressed at the local level," Russell said, "because each county is different, and each water table is different."
Adams told commissioners that if they wanted to change county rules, they should inform their lawyers to draft the appropriate language. That direction has not yet been given.
_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.