Millions of gallons missing from Sugarmill Woods water system

Citrus County water managers are at a loss to explain millions of gallons of water that can't be accounted for in the Sugarmill Woods water system.

Jim Morgan, Contract Compliance Manager in the county's Department of Water Resources, briefed the county commission on Tuesday, telling them that in April 2008, there were 116 million gallons of unaccounted for water, but that between December 2008 and November 2009, that figure had grown to just under 134 million gallons.

Morgan said it could be due to one of three reasons. "Our Sugarmill Woods system could be under-billing, have losses within the transmission system as it leaves the various (water) plants (or) the usage for maintenance and et cetera may still be under-reported," Morgan said.

Commissioners said they were taken aback by the number of gallons that have not been accounted for, with Commissioner Joe Meek calling the figures in Morgan's report, "astronomical." And the consensus among commissioners was that the water problems in Sugarmill Woods be solved before countywide water conservation rules are adopted.

Commissioner John Thrumston said the issue of unaccounted-for water was one of management of the water system. "You guys need to get your hands around this," Thrumston told Morgan and his boss, Bob Knight, "because I'm getting bombarded with phone calls from people in Sugarmill Woods and citizens, and they're pointing fingers at us. We're doing everything we can to make this better, but y'all are the ones that need to get us out of this problem."

Commission Dennis Damato that two approaches the Water Services Division should take is to first, find out where the water is going and, second, to talk to and educate the high-end water users. "Find out where these leaks are. Find out where these unauthorized taps are. Go after where you lose the water," Damato said. "There's a problem. It has to be fixed. It has to be fixed soon."

Teamwork and cooperation will be what it will take to solve the county's water issues, commission chairman Gary Bartell said. "I think, for this board to enthusiastically work, we've got to quit pointing fingers at others and start talking about how we're going to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, the county faces a $239,000 fine from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) for exceeding its water quota in Sugarmill Woods. And as County Administrator Brad Thorpe pointed out, "The clock is still ticking", which means that the county could continue to accrue fines until adequate water conservation measures are taken to preserve the aquifer and underground springs for future generations.

A SWFWMD representative on Dec. 1 told commissioners that the district would be willing to work with the county to use the fine the county must pay SWFWMD to help the county toward the goal of water conservation. The county began its first steps on Dec. 15 when it announced it would to hire five new people to help stop over-consumption of water.

This issue is not likely to go away quickly, as commissioners noted on Tuesday. And the president of the Sugarmill Woods Civic Association, Duane Dueker, told commissioners on Tuesday the association has been working with Sugarmill Woods residents, its homeowners associations and the county to help the county reach its water conservation goals.