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When has the message about water conservation finally sunk in?

It's when the folks who run their sprinklers full blast in the middle of the day, the ones who don't seem to mind soaking their driveway with precious groundwater, the ones who flagrantly water when everybody can see from their address that it is NOT THEIR DAY - it's when those people, rather than the ones with slightly brown lawns, are the neighborhood pariahs.

And that's the point where the county - and, I'm guessing, most of the rest of the Southwest Florida Water Management District - finally arrived after more than three years of once-a-week watering and the supporting barrage of press releases, Web updates and advertising.

Hernando's Utilities Department got a lots of complaints about once-a-week watering restrictions when the rule first went into place in January 2007. Before long, though, those were far outnumbered by anonymous reports of violations.

"People said, 'I don't want to turn in my neighbor, but this is a serious thing,'" said Alys Brockway, Hernando County's water conservation coordinator. "We had buy-in.''

It would seem to make sense not to undo all of that good work, not to follow up the prolonged, urgent call for conservation with one big "never mind.''

Which is why on this issue the county, with one full-time staffer devoted to water conservation, is way ahead of Swiftmud, which is collecting $299 million this year to guard our water resources.

Last month, the water district's governing board voted to relax restrictions and return to twice-a-week watering.

Hernando County, on the other hand, is looking to make once-a-week watering the norm, which is already the policy of Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties. The proposal will get its first hearing before the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday.

Swiftmud's argument is this: Based on groundwater and rainfall levels, the drought really seems to be over, and the district's restrictions carry more weight if they're eased when they aren't absolutely needed. Also, Swiftmud is not giving residents a pass to be water hogs. Its message is to run sprinklers only when you have to.

Yeah, but nothing works like a hard, fast rule, the kind that carries the threat of a fine.

In 2006, with twice-a-week watering, the county Utilities Department pumped 9.5 billion gallons from the aquifer compared to 6.5 billion gallons in 2009, when tighter restrictions were in place.

That's 3 billion gallons saved per year, which could eventually save us millions of dollars in deferred construction of well fields and, down the line, reservoirs or desalination plants.

Here's the other thing: The past 11 years can be seen as one big drought with a couple of brief reprieves. In the long term, with so many people fighting for a finite amount of water in Florida, there's never really enough.

To be healthy, rivers sometimes need to flood and estuaries need to be flushed. And maybe you've noticed that lake levels are not quite back to normal. We start watering more and we're saying, basically, that nature is not quite as important as keeping our Floratam in prime condition.

If once-a-week watering occasionally makes these lawns go slightly brown, well, most of us now know that's a badge of honor.