Turn off those sprinklers. Water restrictions are returning to South Florida.
This time, they might be here to stay.
Water managers voted Thursday to impose three-day-a-week limits for sprinklers from Tequesta to the Keys, saying it’s time for residents and businesses to share the pain of a drought that threatens the region’s wells and wildlife.
“Water conservation is everybody’s responsibility,” Kevin McCarty, chairman of the South Florida Water Management District, said after his board approved the limits in a 9-0 vote.
Even after the drought ends, board members said, they will consider enacting mandatory limits year-round to send the message that water is finite. Such limits are in effect in the Tampa Bay area and other parts of the state.
The new restrictions take effect in six days. Violators could face warnings, fines or “in extreme cases” misdemeanor charges punishable by 60 days in jail.
The board also imposed 30 percent cuts in the water supply for growers around Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie Canal and the Caloosahatchee River.
Separately, the district declared a shortage that will limit the water available to farms in rural Martin and St. Lucie counties that rely on the C-23, C-24 and C-25 canals. The small number of households that draw from those canals will fall under the same restrictions as people in Palm Beach County.
The three-day-a-week limits also will apply to Martin County residents served by Tequesta’s water utility.
Farmers around the lake said the restrictions will cost them on the fields and in the wallet. Those growers have been under 15 percent cuts since November.
“Now that we will be cut back even further and it has not rained in six weeks, our fields are suffering,” said John Hundley, vice president of production for Hundley Farms east of Belle Glade, who estimated crop losses of up to 15 percent in sweet corn alone. “It will all hurt. It’s hurting right now.”
Barbara Miedema, spokeswoman for the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, said farmers around the lake lost an estimated $100 million in sugar cane, citrus, vegetables and other crops in the last drought, which ended in 2001.
Since then, the farmers have continued to suffer from the region’s feast-or-famine climate, said Tom MacVicar, a West Palm Beach water consultant. “These are the same growers who got hammered in 2001 by the drought with significant financial harm, then got hit by two years of hurricanes.”
In contrast, district leaders described the coast’s new lawn-sprinkling limits as “moderate,” saying they will allow more than enough water to keep grass green.
One of the most public symbols of the region’s water profligacy, the spurting fountain in front of West Palm Beach’s city library, will continue to squirt amid crowds of swimsuit-wearing youngsters. Under the district’s rules, fountains that recirculate water can keep operating as long as they don’t leak or overflow.
Even so, the limits will affect millions of coastal residents, along with plant nurseries, landscaping operations, carwashes and every other business that depends on water. And the details will make life trickier. For instance, a home’s allowed watering days will depend on whether its address is odd or even, and nobody will be allowed to water on Fridays.
Even harsher restrictions are inevitable unless the skies reverse the near-record dry spell that has lingered since last spring, district Executive Director Carol Wehle warned. Those could limit watering to two days a week, or even one.
Wehle said last year was the region’s sixth-driest since 1932, and the district’s rain gauges have recorded no rain so far during March in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties. During the past 30 days, rain in those counties has been 85 percent to 90 percent below normal.
The dearth of drops has plunged Lake Okeechobee to less than 11 feet above sea level, more than 4 feet below where it was a year ago.
Within two months, the lake could be too low to drain into the canals that send water to farms, the coast and the Everglades. The district would have to move the water using temporary pumps it began installing this month.
Water levels also have begun dropping in the Everglades, which supplies the bulk of South Florida’s water.
District board members Mike Collins and Malcolm “Bubba” Wade said some of the blame for the shortage should be directed at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which dumped nearly a foot of water from the lake last year to restore the health of its waterlogged interior marshes. The corps wouldn’t stop even after the district requested it, Collins said.
“We wouldn’t be in the position we’re in today with cutbacks if we still had that water in the lake,” said Wade, an executive vice president of United States Sugar Corp.
But the corps says it also had to lower the lake to protect the leak-prone Herbert Hoover Dike, which a panel of district-hired engineering consultants had labeled a “grave and imminent danger” to human life. Acting on that finding, then-Gov. Jeb Bush last year urged the corps to find ways to keep the lake lower year-round.
“Our primary focus was the Herbert Hoover Dike, and that’s still our focus today,” said Dennis Duke, a corps leader from Jacksonville. “It’s easy to talk about the wrong thing you did yesterday.”
One thing that has changed since then: A year ago, meteorologists were predicting a rollicking hurricane season, but it proved to be a dud.
While it’s not yet a crisis for the coast, the drought eventually could allow salt water from the Atlantic to contaminate the coastal wells that supply millions of residents’ faucets. Wildfires could rage. Even the district might not have enough water to save the thousands of acres of underwater plants in the filter marshes that make up its $1.1 billion Everglades cleanup.
Local governments are still gearing up to enforce the rules.
Manalapan may not exhibit the extreme customer-friendliness it showed in 2001, when the town sent employees to reset residents’ sprinklers. Instead, Town Manager Greg Dunham said, residents would be notified by phone, newsletter, e-mail and door hangers.
West Palm Beach water customers will likely get reminders with their monthly bills. “We want to encourage our customers to be as conservative as they can and save water,” said Marjorie Craig, the city’s utilities director.
The city’s water supply comes from Lake Mangonia and Clear Lake, by way of the Grassy Waters Preserve and, ultimately, Lake Okeechobee.
“When we reach the real dry season, we’ll be very limited in the amount of water we can take from Lake Okeechobee,” Craig said.
SOURCE: Palm Beach Post