Missing water across Florida points toward conservation

Whether it be farmers desperate to save their crops from winter's cold breath, or sloppy water management by Florida's counties, the future of the state's water supply can be summed up in two words: "Water conservation."

The appearance of sinkholes in our neighboring counties from watering by farmers have unearthed a little-acknowledged fact - water supplies are shrinking. When they do, the most stark outward testament is the appearance of holes in the earth.

Sometimes, sinkholes aren't seen, but their presence is manifested in other ways. Take, for example, Scott Lake in Polk County thanks to sinkholes below the waterline, was completely drained within 10 days in June 2006. And in Leon County, water in Lake Jackson drains from the lake into the Floridan Aquifer through two sinkholes, Porter Sink and Lime Sink. These are usually partially or completely plugged with sediments, but collapse when groundwater levels drop, allowing lake water to funnel into the aquifer, which can virtually completely drain the lake. This usually happens every 25 years. The last time it drained was Sept. 16, 1999. On May 10, 2007, the lake flowed down the Porter Sink, but pools of water still remained.

Sometimes, however, the lack of proper oversight of water resources bites county governments in the backside. Take, for example, the revelation this week to the county commission that under 134 million gallons of water flowing through the Sugarmill Woods water system couldn't be accounted for during the period of December 2008 to November 2009.

When it was revealed last year that water usage reached new peaks in that area, the county was quick to blame Sugarmill Water System users for the loss, and implemented a rate structure that would penalize the so-called "high-end users."

But that is getting the cart before the horse, as the county concluded at its Jan. 12 meeting.

Now, the approach is to find out where nearly 134 million gallons of water went, find any leaks and unauthorized taps - and, yes - go after those identified by the county as high-end users. The county has called its new approach "Cooperative Conservation," so named by the county's Department of Water Resources. The emphasis is on education, cooperation and compliance.

Even though the county water department says that it has only had the Sugarmill Woods water system for three years, that is no reason to excuse them from properly managing that water resource, a point that Commissioner John Thrumston brought up at this week's commission meeting. Not only that, but one could well ask the question, "How many millions of gallons have been unaccounted for in the three years the county has owned the system?"

Beyond that, there is a more sinister question: "How many gallons of our water resource has been allowed to "wander," willy-nilly and unmanaged, through the county's water systems as a collective whole?"

The $239,000 fine the county now faces for allowing Sugarmill Woods water to exceed the permit granted by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) is a ticking clock. If the county doesn't come to grips with bringing down the amount of water used in that area, more fines will come from SWFWMD. And, in the end, the cost of running county government will surely rise, funded by taxpayer dollars.

Since taxpayers have to cough up money for the county's inability to properly manage water resources, the public is therefore partners in ensuring those resources are properly respected. In other words, every county resident has a stake in water conservation.

But that doesn't let the pubic off the hook as a partner. Each county resident is individually accountable to all other taxpayers in how they use the water in their own, well, back yard. Overwatering by county residents is an oft-documented complaint by the county. And water-wasters should be fined, for all of our sakes. If that doesn't work, then here's a thought: Ration their water flow so they cannot waste beyond their allotment. (Yes, that is a tongue-in-cheek remark).

Whichever way the county chooses to solve its water problems, we would suggest that the county and SWFWMD be both compassionate and tough enough to do what benefits the entire county, as well as other members of the SWFWMD. And some common sense wouldn't be a bad thing, either.

Regardless of the outcome, we will have more water if we use what we have wisely.